Sex Worker Voices
'Nothing About Us, Without Us'
Camille Melissa is a Documentary Photographer, Masters Student, Sex Worker and Visual Activist interested in using photography to challenge the victim centred nature of sex worker imagery and how photography is instrumental in the war against sex workers. Through Whoretography, she is challenging the prevailing ideology of sex-work and wants to present to the viewer an alternative perception of the industry and participants - frequently obscured by one particular, narrow version of feminism, by anti-sex-work rhetoric and by modern Western cultural attitudes towards bodies and sex.
Her photographic and cyber ethnographic work is about stopping the over-simplification of the lives of sex workers, and to challenge current imagery that encourages the sense that the only way of interpreting their lives is to see them as ripe for 'rescue.' Through Whoretography, Camille is working on a new interpretation of sex work imagery that will help to change the visual landscape that informs political views that rob so many sex workers of autonomy.
She is currently publishing a series of books and e-magazines and is working towards secure funding to establish the first and only publishing house dedicated to using the visual medium of photo books to advance the rights of sex workers.
She holds a Bachelor’s Degree in biological sciences, postgraduate in criminology and is undertaking a Masters’s Degree in digital photography.
It is not possible to deconstruct the full complexities of sex worker imagery without including the images of murdered sex workers. As distasteful as that sounds. As difficult as it is to view some of the images, photos of murdered sex workers are integral to the politics of sex worker visual identity. I questioned my photographic morality at times. I question the morality of police who routinely release morgue photographs in a futile attempt at ending sex work through shaming of its participants. Prohibitionists are not adverse to dragging out the occasional dead body shot to prop up their anti-sex work feminist rhetoric. The French are very good at this.
Using photography to shame sex work providers is a well-documented tactic. Just google prostitute mugshot, and you will see for yourself. Looking at photographs of dead sex workers makes people feel incredibly uncomfortable. Highlighting them on a platform dedicated to understanding sex work images provokes mixed responses. The decision to republish these pictures is not a flippant afterthought. It is not clickbait to garner better traffic stats. They make me angry and frustrated. I do find it fascinating, though, readings people's reaction to seeing the faces and the bodies of murdered prostitutes. What is it that’s so offensive? The murder itself or the fact that a photograph exists of it?
It's a photo of a murdered sex worker that I believe kick started the obsession with visually portraying sex workers as unfortunate victims of circumstance. Mary Jayne Kelly was killed on the morning of 9 November 1888 by Jack the Ripper, his final victim. The police images shot at 13 Milers court are photographic images of a grotesquely mutilated body. These pictures form part of our visual cultural psyche, an obvious visual cultural reference point when conjuring up thoughts of what fate all prostitutes are owed. With the distance of time, the black whiteness of a bloodied body of a butchered prostitute seems to be more palatable. Artful. Compare the black and white shot with a colour enhanced image and then tell me which one rubs your visual sensibilities the wrong way.
It is, not Mary Jane Kelly that sparked my interest in the photos of murdered sex workers. It's Kelly Lee Carr. When looking at the different typologies of sex worker representation online, it would be a photographic lie to ignore the story of contemporary murdered sex workers only because I may offend someone's delicate sensibilities. I have said this many times before that the internet is a collapsing archival system. Stories of murdered sex workers are getting buried amongst the sheer volume of images. That’s how Kelly Lee Carr came to be integral to Whoretography. Wading through the cesspool of vile depictions of sex workers, she caught my attention only because I did not realise what I was looking at; it took a few moments to clock that she was dead and not sleeping. I asked myself foolishly why was a ruler next to her head?
To say I am obsessed with Kelly Lee Carr is to strongly put. She has certainly captured my attention. Her self-documentation was a pre-death inspired move on her part. Perhaps it’s a romantic nostalgia I have for the 1990s. I am trying to recapture that feeling of peeling back the album plastic and smoothing it over the photos of drunk friends.
Kelly Lee Carr taps into my very personal connection to photography that we all end up as a collection of photographs. I only know Kelly Lee Carr as a collection of images. If you understand the lives of archives, then you need to know where your emotional response to the archives comes from. It is an overwhelming sadness I have about a person who died before the online visual cultural revolution; Kelly has been caught up in the visual machine of the internet. In death, she epitomises that relationship between the digital era photography and pre-digital imagery.
You can read the police report about what happened to Kelly Lee Carr. Killed by her boyfriend, although he claims it was suicide, as he would. When they discovered her body in a cheap hotel room she called home; her battered body lay amongst photographs of herself she had hung onto and treasured over the years. We did this in the 1990s, took, printed and stashed 100s of photographs away for safe keeping.
What struck me about the first shot I saw of her; a morgue photo was the inherent beauty in it, perhaps I am over thinking too much the warm tones of the image. Perhaps I am full of photographic theorist bullshit. Maybe what I see in that photograph of Kelly is my reflection. That could be me; I could be dead one day laying on a slab and labelled as just another dead prostitute.
So I undertook some research and uncovered some of the photographs that were found at the crime scene and found myself asking if the police had recent and old pictures of Kelly why the need to release the morgue and mugshot photos in an attempt to identify who Kelly Lee Carr was. It made no sense to me.
The internet is littered with websites about her, intrigued about the identity of this tragic prostitute. Romantically, I like to think is was photographic foresight on her part to keep images, a way for her to cling to her first identity lost in all the aliases and the address changes. A clue to a family who may come looking for her after death but I know better than that. All of us with transient lives carried photographs with us in the 90s. I still do.
Most will view Kelly as someone who was complicit in her murder simply because of her status as a prostitute. The man did not kill her; it was prostitution that did her in but what did she expect. Hooking is the only culprit in this crime story and well, the dead whore on the slab. Death by prostitution. A long drawn out painful suicide. A poetic tragedy of lost hope and self-destruction. Being slowly euthanised by way of fucking for cash.
Invisible in life that she remains buried under her last known working name. Photographed in death so the world can have a visual cue of the fate that will become all prostitutes. Robbed of autonomy and agency by the sharing of her morgue and mugshots Murdered amongst a stash of photographic portraits, her body lay next to visual clues as to identity.
I am currently working on a book using various cyber ethnographic research methods that attempts to make sense of the last years of the life of the whore they dismissed as 'Eldorado Jane.'