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Prostitutes in London Use Cameras to Alter Shadowy Image

by Rajashri on July 31, 2008 at 2:15 PM
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 Prostitutes in London Use Cameras to Alter Shadowy Image

Joy, Sue and Amy are among the countless army of prostitutes working in London's sometimes shadowy underworld -- but a new project aims to shed light on lives often tinged with quiet desperation.

The U-Turn Project gives each woman a camera, asking them to document the reality of their everyday existence and revealing stories of homelessness, drug addiction, rape and worse.

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"I've been a prostitute from the age of 13," said 49-year-old Joy, who has chosen to tell her story with a photograph of a red light with the word "Stop" on it.

"My mother and dad sold my body from the age of five to my caretaker for 10 pounds (12 euros, 19 dollars). I was 16 when I had my first baby. He was 14 weeks when he died," she adds.
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The U-Turn Project deals with 250 women like Joy ever year at their centre in Bethnal Green, in the heart of London's East End, areas of which are blighted by crime and deprivation.

Its chair, Jan Woroniecki, says he is ready to do anything "to help them or simply keep them alive".

Two years ago, Jan went to an exhibition mounted by PhotoVoice, another not-for-profit organisation which helps some of society's most vulnerable people by giving them cameras.

Cameras have been given to Afghan street children, the mentally ill in the United States or refugees in London.

"I saw that the work they were doing with children in other countries and the similar kind of victims as the women we're working with," he said.

"I saw the way they were using photography as a means to coming to terms with their environment and their lives.

-- I want to be seen as a human, not just a sex worker --

"It's proved to be extraordinarily effective, a very powerful tool and one that everybody would understand because everybody knows a camera, everybody has used a camera in their life."

The exhibition led to a joint project with PhotoVoice, called "Change the Picture".

Equipment was installed at the U-Turn centre and over eight months, the women learnt the basics of photography before taking the cameras and documenting their lives.

"The purpose is to use photography as a tool, as a platform to speak out about their issues that are important for them, and also to try to raise awareness because they're a very unrecognised group and there's very little public understanding on the story of those women," said PhotoVoice's co-founder Tiffany Fairey.

The response has been "extremely positive", she said.

"Many of the women were aware they have an opportunity to learn, to have something to use in a positive way, a thing they could create and achieve and be proud of, an opportunity to be taken seriously and to learn," she added.

Sue, 26, has been on and off the streets since the age of 13 and is a crack cocaine user in east London.

"It has made me see more things differently now," she told AFP. "I sometimes see something and wish I had a camera because it just looks so beautiful and I want to take a picture.

"No-one can stop me seeing beautiful things now. This project has really been great for me. I was going to nick the camera anyway to sell it, but after a few weeks, I began to enjoy the workshops so I didn't steal it in the end.

I wanted people to see me as a human being not just a... sex worker."

Amy, 38, agrees. She was systematically abused, as were her siblings and she is now on medication for mental illness.

"I found it really good, although at first I wasn't sure if I could understand how to use the camera. I ended up loving it and it took my mind off other things for a while," she said.

"At first I did it because I had nothing else to do that day.

"It gave me the chance to focus on something other than our normal and rather depressing lives. We have never had the chance to do something like this before."

"I was upset when they said the programme would end as I enjoyed being part of the group and doing something positive with my life."

Source: AFP
RAS/L
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