Disclaimer: I want to make it clear from the beginning that I am an extremely privileged sex worker. As such, I have never intended anything I’ve written on the subject to be construed as representative of any lived experience or opinion beyond my own. That theme goes for this piece, too.
About a year ago, I agreed to do a photo shoot and interview with Indira Cesarine, owner and curator of The Untitled Space. Her concept was presented to me as seeking to document the real life of a sex worker, and included very candid, vulnerable statements on my part involving my time in this industry. Cesarine has been extremely vocal in her self-identification as a feminist and as a champion of women’s rights, and I gave her the benefit of the doubt that she would treat the resulting footage with sensitivity and respect.
In classic 20/20 hindsight, I realize that I naively consented to participate in this project without giving it the scrutiny that such a topic deserves. I also lament not requesting an outline in writing conveying her concept and her intentions, as now I don't have any documentation of her 180. (Although, as you’ll read, the impetus behind the shoot proved to be rather immaterial, as the photographs were eventually displayed with context wholly amputated.) However, I really don't have a motivation to raise a big stink by fabricating this entire thing, and I would hope that anyone who knows anything about me would know that I'd have precisely 0% interest in participating in what this became ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
Recently, I was made aware that large images of me from this shoot were prominently featured in Cesarine’s exhibit at the Spring/Break Art Fair. I had previously declined to participate in the (HOTEL) XX exhibition when asked if I would be interested in including a few of my collages. At the time that I informed Cesarine of this, I also inquired as to the trajectory of our sex work-themed shoot, and was told that there were no immediate plans for how or when that project was to be presented.
Given my clear lack of interest in being involved in (HOTEL) XX, I was blindsided that my likeness had been so massively reproduced within the exhibit — and without any of the accompanying interview. I decided to write an email to Cesarine, letting her know of my surprise and dismay re: her decision in this matter (of which she did not inform me before, during, or after the installation):
Her response blatantly disregarded most of my points, which were focused on the moral and ethical stance of a photographer toward her subject and honoring how a project — particularly one dealing with such a fraught subject — is described to a collaborator. Instead, she defended her right to present “her” work however, whenever, and wherever she chose without much respect towards those involved:
I find it interesting that Cesarine specifically mentioned I “have many many times stated in previous interviews that you are a doninatrix [sic] — even in our talk at the gallery you said that.” This is referring to a panel discussion that took place in conjunction with Cesarine’s group exhibit Angry Women, in which I showed a collage.
What she did not mention — or hear, perhaps — was that I also spoke at length about how one of my primary interests in my collage practice is to examine and critique the lack of agency subjects and models have in pieces of art that depict them. This includes the implicit assumption that the photographer, director, or painter is entirely or largely responsible for and in charge of the fate of a given work. Having begun my career as a model, I have had considerable experience in which I felt that my creative contributions were underplayed or outright disregarded. As a response, in my collages, I re-purpose and re-contextualize the original images of myself as the subject (or object) in a photograph.
I replied to Cesarine as follows:
And received this as a rebuttal:
Cesarine repeatedly mentions my agreeing to do the shoot, for which I was compensated — $50, in case you were wondering (a sum I would gladly return). What she does not acknowledge is that her presentation of the work was completely dissimilar to how the project was described to me at the time of my buy-in. Her ad nauseum statements about industry norms and how “no photographer asks the model for permission to exhibit their work after you do the shoot with consent” made me rather miffed. I am of the opinion that this standard is an antiquated concept that contributes to a power imbalance between photographer and subject, and it is overdue for re-examination. Furthermore, I would assert that my involvement exceeded “modeling” and was predicated on the belief that — at the very least — the interview was to be part and parcel of the project.
To be entirely clear: I am not declaring that anything illegal transpired here. What I am stating is that this exchange is evidence of an utter disinterest in the feelings and livelihood of a subject who was candid about her experiences in an occupation derided by most--including, as it would appear, Cesarine herself.
Also, Cesarine’s position on one-time, blanket consent — based on parameters that were later made obsolete — being sufficient for the photographer to then co-opt the work after the fact strikes me as being incompatible with the sentiments of the current feminist movement that she is ardently involved in.
…which was replied to with:
At this point, I didn’t bother to engage further, as it was apparent that this wasn’t going anywhere worth my time.
My intention with posting screenshots to Instagram of the email exchange between me and Cesarine was not necessarily to “expose” her or get her “canceled.” I simply thought it was appropriate to present documentation of her attitudes towards those she collaborates with — particularly sex workers — because I found them to be completely at odds with the stated ethos and causes she claims to stand for.
Also, her statements on why she wanted to document sex workers in an interview about Spring/Break on the Hunger magazine website were almost comically tone-deaf:
Uh… no. Just no.
The most important issues sex workers are currently dealing with are, in fact, not being depicted in films “wearing a lot of heavy makeup, perhaps badly dyed hair and fake everything else.” (As though there's anything wrong with that presentation of self, but apparently it offends Cesarine's sensibilities.) The sex workers I know are actually, in general, more concerned with maintaining our livelihoods within a sociopolitical system that is unrelenting in its attempts to stigmatize and quash this vocation. (I linked Cesarine in my initial email to an article discussing the FOSTA-SESTA legislation; this tidbit was not remarked upon in her response.)
And the insistence on describing a large contingent of sex workers as “girls next door” who are “paying for tuition” speaks to another related issue: that sex work is often considered valid only if it coexists with another, simultaneous educational or professional pursuit. For some reason, it seems to be inconceivable that this may actually be someone’s full-time, voluntary career, and they are not necessarily or imminently transitioning to something else.
I also don’t quite grasp Cesarine’s belief that “the images speak for themselves as far as breaking the stereotype of what a ‘dominatrix’ or ‘sex worker’ looks like.” First of all, if I had known that Cesarine’s entire focus was to make sure people know that not all sex workers look like those in her referenced, unnamed movies, I would have backed away from the get-go. And the photos really don’t say much on their own, in my opinion, considering they were severed from any relevant, contextual material and instead displayed in a “hotel.”
My question is simple: Why? Why choose sex workers as a subject at all? Why choose anyone, really, if one can not have (or pretend to have) even the slightest interest in their reactions to how you've chosen to depict them? If my occupational choice was actually valued, I would think that my reaction to its portrayal would be similarly respected. Otherwise, the whole thing smacks of opportunism, and the facade of caring about a marginalized group proves rather flimsy. Personally, I have far more respect for someone if she’s honest that she’s more interested in self-promotion and money than in earnestly furthering a trendy cause. To me, this is about basic human decency versus some form of deluded, self-serving "artistic integrity." And if someone hangs her hat on the latter instead of the former, I think that preference should be known.
(As an aside: The aforementioned interview appears to have been edited; originally, my moniker “Maidenfed” was included in the paragraph I screenshot. Also, the title of the accompanying photograph contained my pseudonym, but now says only “M.” Below is the image and caption included with the article, juxtaposed with a screenshot from a video of the exhibition catalog, in which you can see that the title of another piece in the series is “Maidenfed 2:15pm.” So basically, just remove my name and no one will ever know…?)
I’ll be honest: writing this seems like possible overkill. Big deal, some naked pictures of me were shown. As Cesarine made sure I remembered, there are plenty of those already out there. And there are far more colossally important issues on which to focus; though, as I like to remind myself, caring about one thing does not mean you can't care about another concurrently.
Nevertheless, I wanted to present an article (that is not an Instagram post, which may be summarily deleted by the powers that be) that addresses an example of what I find to be an unfortunate phenomenon: the lack of basic compassion and respect for sex workers by those in the art world and the media for their own “woke” clout. As can be seen in the emails, there was not even a passing moment of validation, understanding, or concern within Cesarine's responses.
Beyond that, as I mentioned, I believe that it’s past time for a major revision of the industry norms currently in place regarding the rights of a model or subject in relation to art showcasing them. I’ve had far too many experiences over the years at shoots in which I was treated as some sort of not-quite-human novelty — whether on account of my comfort with nudity or the fact that I am not a “real” aka agency model — and it gets old fast.
One thing I am grateful for that came out of this experience, however, is that I no longer have the slightest interest in leasing my story out to anyone else for their own personal, professional, and/or financial gain. I’m more than capable of documenting and presenting my own narrative.
In closing, I’m including some Instagram comments, because they are eloquent as fuck:
- missaudpics: As a collaborator/photographer who respects people to the core, this disappoints me deeply, I’m sorry you had to navigate and endure such treatment, it’s not your image they’re speaking to, it’s you. This power play here of mine and yours is a very real conversation when work and art and personal image and ownership mix. You’re obviously strong, articulate and handled it well, but it disappoints me that people who make other people’s work, aka photographers who work with talented people, try to Take the performers years of dedication and make it their work because they caught it for a special moment with you. Where is their respect for that experience you shared? I have distain for those who don’t respect true Creation and do their best to take advantage. Thank you for being the owner of your story and image and staying true to the authentic you that you care to share. Anyway I can support you, just say the word. I honor your message and experience. THIS sense of ownership of others because it’s paid for is a false sense and you have every right to sue anyone to protect your image if someone is to use it in a way you do not and did not support. You and everyone has a right to cultivate the public image and message they see fit.
- velvetstockings: Let me tell you something this is been some of the most emotional and draining weeks of my life- dealing with not being treated right not being listened to by the people that are in you’re life…. makes you feel worthless. and to see someone treat you like this makes me want to punch them in the face. Especially if it’s another woman making you feel this way. You deserve the love and the compassion and honesty that you give other people and when they don’t give that back to you, you say your piece and you get your closure, but know that your thoughtful words and your compassion probably will not be reciprocated and they don’t deserve you’re professionalism. And I know that you know that they will try to minimalize your efforts or down talk your feelings, and that being said art is vulnerability but this person is, ironically enough bc of the subject matter, treating you as if you were a sex worker and because they paid you, they can do whatever they want with you- this interaction is a huge fucking metaphor! Holy shit. Like… it’s almost comical, the parallels I see in this. They deserve to be ghosted. The way this person is talking to you is such a reflection of the narcissistic and capitalistic art industry. people are just so full of themselves it’s insane. I appreciate your honesty and when you open up to anyone of us on Instagram you are making a difference, you are creating a chAnge, and you’re definitely a source of inspiration and bravery to me. Vulnerability is more than just wearing a latex suit talking about penises, some people just don’t get that. This is just a reminder that I adore you and you’re fuckin great💜💘
- linnea.bby: Disgusted. “There are pictures of you nude posted elsewhere”. Wow can she be more obvious in her anti sex worker attitude? That’s the same argument that puts a lot of sex workers in danger with the whole “you agreed to this thing so youve agreed to anything” ignoring that it’s your body and you have 1000% the right to decide the conditions and choose to whom and how your body is displayed. Fake ass bs. It’s so surreal, you remind some of these “sex positive feminists” that you are a real human being and BOOM like magic they turn into the shitty anti sex worker they always were. She basically said she gives fuck all about you as a human, you were merely a paid mannequin to her, and instead of trying to change the shittier aspects of the already shitty modeling industry, she’ll go along with it as long as it benefits her. Truly, a feminist pioneer.
- atarasenko: She claims to be in support of the sex worker/woman/model while hiding behind the industry standard of the model being anonymous art fodder. Classic. You were reasonable, clear, professional, and kind in your expectation to be kept informed. It was obvious that your photos were prominent in the display, and even if they weren’t, you should have been asked…. Not because she has to but because she is claiming to be better then her version of whatever she claims to be fighting with this exhibition.