Those who ask for money in exchange for sexual services are defined as “prostitutes”, an illegitimate or illegal status, while those who pay for sex are rarely differentiated from the male population in general (Gail Pheterson, The prostitution prism)
Virginie Despentes, in King Kong Theory, rescues this fragment of Pheterson’s book to reflect on the cultural construction of stigmatized femininity. The clients constitute a varied population (in terms of social extraction, age, motivations…), while whores are packaged with the same label: victims.
Perhaps the latter could be qualifyed as a result of the emergence of young women who don’t hide theirselfs pseudonyms and defend the dignity of their profession: university girls admirers of Annie Sprinkle or girls who simply claim to vivre sa vie, and do so with greater fortune than the character of Anna Karina in the Godard film. But of course, trendy prostitution is out of the reach of most.
In any case, in Gentleman’s Club Cristina De Middel doesn’t enter into that debate about the autonomy versus stigma of the sex worker, but she focuses on what is usually kept in the shadow, the client.
This photographic project has been selected to be exhibited in the In Focus section of the international Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize 2016 held at the National Portrait Gallery in London.
De Middel adapts her visual language, her narrative form, to each project: she flirts with street photography, with the fable, with filmic frame… She detached herself from photojournalism and its mixtifications to explore levels of understanding underlying the consensual reality.
Often the trigger of her researches are eccentric figures with which she immerses herself in the idiosyncrasy of a place, a time …, mocking Western ethnocentrism and media misrepresentation: Ashok Aswani, the Indian fascinated with Chaplin (The Perfect Man); The Zambians who in the middle of the cold war didn’t want to be worth less in space adventure (Afronautas) ..
The surreal varnish provides her a subversive view of local conflicts (the whales harassing the slums in Rio…), the irony aligns her comments on paradoxical realities (Chinese communism, manufactures in India …)
Gentleman’s Club lacks the mythical or playful background of these other series, because what interests she here is the portrait, with no more filters than the viewfinder of Cristina’s camera. It occurs in hotel rooms of Rio de Janeiro. They are men selected from those who responded to the ad in a local newspaper.
The deal is about retributive equity, the amount that they receive by letting themselves be photographed is the one they pay for a sexual service. The same thing Philip-Lorca Di Corcia did with the Hollywood hustlers, but in Cristina’s case the transaction makes the consumer a consumption object, makes him public in exchange for money, as public are the women in this business.
And that role reversal sets the stage for the subsequent work of reverse shot, the portraits. The half-closed shutters leave areas in shadow, accentuating the uninhabited appearance of the place and the clandestine tone of the encounter. Shadows sometimes veil faces, but most often they are shown, some with impassable expressions, others more vulnerable … some comfortably lying in bed, others standing up, tense or pensive, often seemingly indifferent to the camera.
They unfold a varied sample of the mystique of masculinity about which Despentes talked. The photographs are accompanied by short notes such as statistical reports (age, marital status, profession, frequency of use of services, cost of a service).
Cristina shows with simplicity a reality, without judging or taking sides. What this has in common with others of her photographic works is the immersion within a certain ecosystem trying to understand its internal logic, without assuming that she will achieve it.
In general, her gaze is similar to a parallax vision, opting to move to the margins, practicing the decentralization, constant change of position, away from the old Europe to escape the topics about the other.
In Focus: Cristina de Middel “Gentleman’s Club”
National Portrait Gallery, London
until 26th February 2017