The rule of thumb in American culture is that anyone who is in the sex industry is captivating — such is the case with traditionally illicit pastimes — and the men and women who work in the industry are adored or derided, often with fervor. But with every fantasy comes reality, and photographers are continually trying to capture the reality of sex work.
Jonathan Harris is just the latest in a long line of photographers and filmmakers who have chosen people in the sex industry as their subjects. Harris has made an unconventional documentary following women who make lesbian porn in a project that, as described by T Magazine, "aims to break down stereotypes and misconceptions around lesbian-identified porn by turning the camera away from these actresses sex-fueled day jobs, and toward the quotidian lives of these women."
On his website, Harris said he believes that porn is "the elephant in the room of the Internet":
"With a prescient sense of what we really want, porn taps into what is just below the surface — what is not yet accepted by mainstream society, yet what is in us anyway — percolating, potent, and primal. In this way, porn is a predictor of culture. The willingness of porn stars to open their lives to an anonymous public foreshadows broader cultural shifts around privacy, authenticity, sexuality, and self-promotion, where the lines between life and work are increasingly blurry."
Harris is not alone in his interest in the authenticity of sex work; here are a few other projects that have attempted to show the real people that lie beyond the boundary of what they do:
1. Pornstars Without Makeup
Makeup artist Melissa Murphy regularly uploads photos of the women she works on before and after their sexy transformations to her Instagram account. A big photoset of them went viral on reddit a couple months ago with only the phrase "What our minds are being conditioned to be attracted to" describing them.
2. Off the set: porn stars and their partners
Three years ago, photography team Paulie and Pauline took it upon themselves to document people in porn when they're at home, with their significant others:
"...given the nature of their work, many of us assume that all porn stars must be jaded, emotionally detached individuals who live in a hedonistic blur, void of any real intimate relationships.
When we began photographing couples in the porn industry, we found that to a large extent the opposite was true. Far from being incapable of intimacy, the people we met thrived on the strength of their personal relationships."
3. Nevada Rose: Inside the American Brothel
In 2011, Marc McAndrews published a book of photos he took at a few of the only truly legal brothels in the United States. In an essay about how he began the project, McAndrews admits to some preconceptions before beginning the project:
"I had heard the Nevada brothels existed, but going to one hadn’t ever really crossed my mind. I was never a big fan of strip clubs; they felt desperate and depressing to me. The ones I had been to were rooms full of drunken men, yelling at the sight of a nipple, desperately throwing money at women who had no intention of sleeping with them. And prostitution? Well, I had always thought of it in terms of what one used to see on the seamier streets in NY or roaming the casinos in Vegas. The legal, sanctioned, and regulated sale of sex never showed up on my mental radar."
4. XXX: 30 Porn Star Portraits
In 2004, Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, who has photographed some of the most famous people in the world, took it upon himself to release a book with images of porn stars; each open page featured one clothed and one nude photo of the individual. The book also included essays by people like John Malkovich, Salman Rushdie, and John Waters, and an HBO documentary was released as well. Greenfield-Sanders explained to Salon that he just sort of happened upon the project:
"... as I met more porn stars I realized how interesting, how diverse and how exceptional they were.
I don’t know if I can change people’s minds, but I would like to create a dialogue about the subject and these people — about porn stars — and what they do, and about sex."
In her book 2000 book Women, Annie Leibovitz photographed women of all kinds – including Vegas showgirls. The distinction between these women, who I would have classified as dancers originally, is laid out in a New Yorker article about her photos:
"They call themselves 'showgirls,' which means that, unlike 'dancers,' they perform topless. In exchange, they get flashier costumes, greater prominence in the show, and an extra fifty dollars a week."
The way Leibovitz photographed these women – "Before and After", both in their sexualized costumes and in their everyday clothes – is strikingly similar to the way these other photographers have approached the sex industry in recent years, though their jobs lie on the periphery of that trade. In the book, Leibovitz includes full descriptions of who they are, like the woman above, Akke Alma: "She lived for seven years in Paris, where she performed at the Crazy Horse nightclub. In 1995 she moved to the United States and became a showgirl at the Stardust Casino in Las Vegas. She speaks five languages and studies civil and corporate law."