Books: Charlotte Schmitz Collaborates with Sex Workers for "La Puente"

By David Schonauer   Tuesday January 21, 2020

It’s said to be the world’s oldest profession.

But photographer Charlotte Schmitz found a new way to portray it.

When she was 18, Schmitz was studying in Machala, Ecuador, and there she heard about La Puente, the area’s largest brothel. A family business for 45 years, the establishment employs more than 150 women who, noted the British Journal of Photography recently, are paid $10 per client.

A decade later, Schmitz returned to Machala as a fine-art photographer and, noted BJP,  immersed herself into the world of the brothel, befriending regulars and employees alike for a project she called “La Puente.” The work — dazzling Polaroid images made in collaboration with the sex workers — was later chosen as winner of the 2019 FotoEvidence W Award, given to a woman photographer for a personal project, and it has now been collected in a book.

“Schmitz gave the women full agency over their images: they posed how they wanted, and had the option to anonymize or embellish their images using nail polish,” noted BJP. The bright and colorful work "shows how the women want to be seen,” noted Schmitz. The book also features Schmitz’s “rather sobering diary entries,” added BJP.

“Collaborative, inclusive, and impartial, La Puente is an antidote to both the stereotypical and sympathetic visual narratives that surround what is probably the most stigmatized line of work,” notes the British Journal of Photography.

“You came and saw us as women, as mothers, as sisters,” one of the sex workers told Schmitz.

“At the beginning, it was not my motive to challenge how sex workers are commonly portrayed,” Schmitz told BJP. “In the past few years I have adopted a participatory approach to my work, which naturally invites the people I photograph to create their own narratives. It creates space for a nuanced, human and relatable depth to individuals, and challenges stereotyping.

“I’m interested in questioning how to minimize the unbalanced structure within the photographic process, so it was important for me to create work which shows how the women want to be seen, not how they are already seen,” she continued. “I’m tired of photography that objectifies sex workers and people in vulnerable situations, or which mistreat ethical guidelines in photojournalism; photographing minors without concealing their identity, for instance. There is often a power structure between the photographer and the people involved, and photographers often tell the story from their own perspective, but not their peoples’.”

Nail varnish was initially used to embellish the images as a means of providing anonymity to the women in the photographs. The varnish quickly developed into a creative instrument, notes FotoEvidence — “a way for the women to beautify the world within the brothel.”

“Much later I understood how well the nail polish and its symbolism for femininity worked with this project,” Schmitz told the British Journal of Photography. “I have been using nail polish ever since, even for the photos I take of myself. For me it is a great material, to paint, to cover, to enhance.”

Each book cover is painted by the photographer with nail polish, notes FotoEvidence. Titles and names on the cover are Charlotte Schmitz’ personal handwriting, connecting to her notes handwritten in La Puente.

“For me,” Schmitz told the British Journal of Photography, “the book design and editing reflects the feeling of being in La Puente.”


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