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Wednesday, 2 March 2011

Collaboration 3: Gemma-Rose Turnbull and The Red Light Dark Room


Gemma-Rose Turnbull is an Australian photographer working with sex workers in St Kilda in The Red Light Dark Room.

What is your day job?

I am an Australian photographer, who specialises in photographing the lives of women. I studied documentary photography at the Queensland College of Art, graduating in 2005. I have worked as a newspaper photographer, a freelance photojournlist, a Photojournalism lecturer and a photographer since graduating. 

How did you get involved in this collaborative project?

In early 2010 I was awarded an Australia Council for the Arts Connections Residency to do a residency with non-profit organisation St Kilda Gatehouse to teach, photograph and interview the marginalised women who use their services. More than 250 rolls of film were shot by nine women to produce a hardcover book, which is a combination of their photographs, my photographs, interviews and stories.

I conceived the project after spending two days at St Kilda Gatehouse in November 2009. I was profoundly effected by the service they offered, and on very little money. They are completely donor funded, and I was determined to find a way to use my skills to help raise money for them. We are aiming to sell 1,000 books and raise $50,000 for them.  
How did you gain access to the people in the project?

Street sex work, which involves the trading of sexual services for money or drugs at the street level, is a particularly hazardous and stressful occupation. Those engaged in street sex work tend to be the most marginalised, oppressed, and stigmatised. These women face many daily challenges, including physical and sexual assaults, ill treatment by the public, housing instability, incarcerations and continued financial difficulties.

Because of these things it is hard to build trust with and engage women who work in the profession, however working with St Kilda Gatehouse allowed me to build on the trust they had already established. This allowed the project to come about much more quickly than it otherwise would have.

Is there anything you cannot gain access to?

The reality is there are lots of places a camera can’t go with this project. It can’t walk with me into the Children’s Court where I spend a day sitting with one of the women, keeping her company while she fights for custody of her three-week-old daughter, nor can I take it into loiterer’s court. I can’t document the woman I visit in the high dependency unit in the psych ward. I can’t go into a police interview room with it. And I can’t take the image of a woman left diminished in her prison uniform, sitting in jail; a shaky lip and arms carved with scars and tattoos, the visible remnants of her outside life.

What are the problems with photographing this subject?

Photographing people whose permission is compromised by their vulnerability, or by their life controlling drug addiction is an ethical minefield. I have been very careful to not intrude on their lives too much, and have mostly stepped back and allowed them to photograph to their level of comfort.

What do you hope to achieve by doing this project?

The three main outcomes I am hoping to achieve are to engage the women in something meaningful, that in some way gives them a sense of achievement. To raise money to support the organisation that continues to support them, and to produce a body of work that helps humanise the women who work as street sex workers in St Kilda.

Were there any assumptions you had made before the project that you realised did not apply?

I assumed that I would photograph much more than I actually did. The lack of photographing was about gaining trust. It took me a long time to get the women comfortable in my presence, let alone in front of my gaze. They disappear if I pull it out too soon, or push it too far. And I can understand. They are a group of people who are among the most victimised and vilified in our society. Identity is one of the only, very small, powers they can wield. And before they hand their visage over to me, they need to trust I am going to honour that gift.

I feel very reconciled with that though, it’s a collaborative project, and together we have made a whole body of work.

Were there any assumptions you made before starting the project that you realised did apply?

There is always some basis in stereotypes. The images we see of street sex workers are based in accuracy; the majority of them are drug affected, many come from abusive domestic backgrounds and situations and homelessness. But they are, of course, far more than those stereotypes. 

How do you fund this project?

I was supported by grants from The Australia Arts Council, and the Helen Macpherson Smith Trust.

What constitutes success for this project?

Success is measure in tiny incremental goals along the way. It’s someone discovering how to focus a camera, or someone being excited by the photographs they have taken. Someone relishing the opportunity to share their story. For me it’s taking time to get to know and care about the people I am working with, rather than running through their lives and taking their images from them for my own personal gain. 

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