La Puente: A Women-led Photo Project Challenging the Stigma Around Sex Work
Photographer Charlotte Schmitz on co-creating with sex workers at La Puente, a brothel in Southern Ecuador.
In 2016, Cologne-born photographer Charlotte Schmitz went back to Machala, Ecuador, where she once lived as an exchange student during high school. With the 170 women working there, La Puente, one of the biggest brothels in Southern Ecuador, was stuck in the artist’s mind as a place that symbolized the gender-based double standards that run amok in every society, and especially more so in the “openly” patriarchal ones like that of Ecuador. “We were not allowed to have sex, not before marriage, especially us female exchange students,” Schmitz reminesces in La Puente, the photo book. “My male friends on the other hand, were free. Men are allowed more than women. They had La Puente, the brothel. Some came with their fathers, others with friends.”
Hyperaware of and always bothered by the hypocrisy surrounding one’s existence as a woman, Schmitz arrived at La Puente with the intention to interview and photograph sex workers, a most marginalized and misrepresented segment of women, globally.
What Schmitz’s project evolved into is as empowering as it is moving: Working with Polaroids, the women at La Puente painted on their photographs with nail polish upon the photographer’s invitation. First conceived as a step in the direction of guaranteed anonymity, the layer of nail polish elevates the photographs, bringing a rarely seen auto-narrative quality to the images. With that quality, the polaroids become valuable postcards from Machala.
Brought to life by the collaboration of three women, Schmitz’s project is the recipient of Foto Evidence Press’s 2019 W Award, focusing on personal experiences of female-identifying photographers. Below, we chat with the artist about her time at La Puente and shifting narratives previously written by men.
The portraits you took at La Puente speak very much of selfhood, they are intimate and powerful. How did you grow from an outsider into someone who is a friend/storyteller?
Starting my youth, curiosity was my drive to discover places and people. When you are honest and you have this curiosity, people always make you become a part of their lives. I don’t really draw a line between being a photographer, journalist, a human, woman, or myself. I usually become friends with the people I photograph and keep in touch with them after. Magaly, who was one of the closest friends I had at La Puente was the entry point for me.
What brought about the decision to work with Polaroid?
A few reasons. First of all, I think it really fits to my character. I’m rather present, I’d rather talk to the people I photograph, and Polaroid allows you to take one photo or a few photos. Whereas in digital photography, you would have too many possibilities, you’d have to plan all the other shots you would take. With Polaroid, I reflect much more on how I want to photograph, and the rest of the time, I can just be there as Charlotte, not photographing.
It also creates trust, especially in places and situations that are a bit difficult, or you are not allowed to take photos, like at La Puente. The photo is just this one original copy, and I always ask the women to just give it back to me if it’s OK for her—if they like the image of themselves in it. I think this is really important. Last of all, with Polaroid, it’s this performative act. I photograph you; this photo comes out. It’s white and I don’t even yet know about the outcome. We’re holding it in our hands, and there’s this moment of waiting, which creates intimacy as well. Then of course, it allows the possibility to change the outcome. You could write on it, you could paint on it with nail polish, you could cut something out. There’s this possibility of direct interaction which you don’t have in digital photography.
How did nail polish become a part of this project?
That is actually something that developed within La Puente. Once I started taking photos, I quickly realized that providing anonymity was extremely important. Very soon, there was this idea that we had to use some kind of material to cover identities. The women were already using nail polish, so it became nail polish. First it was this red color that belonged to one of the women. Later, I asked two women to buy some more nail polish, and I brought back some more from Germany.
Another element that makes the book so poignant is the close-ups of bedsheets. Did you make the decision to include them early on in the project?
I think it was quite early. The rooms at La Puente are rented out on a weekly basis, so they’re not personal at all. I felt like the bedsheets were the only personal items in the room, and they’re so colorful and different. In the beginning, I started photographing them with my Polaroid camera as well, but that didn’t work out because of technical reasons. When I showed the failed photos to one of the women, she offered her bedsheet to me, so that I could exhibit the original. We started exchanging bedsheets. I’d buy new ones and in the end, almost 20 women gave their old bedsheets to me. They are an important part of my multimedia work, in the book they look equal in size, but showing the originals in installations is where they really unfold.
The female body has always been political. What do you think this selection of photos says about the current political reality of women in Ecuador, or women’s bodies in Latin America?
Giving the women the possibility to show themselves how they want to be seen, rather than how they are is something important, especially in this day and age. Most photography work is done by men in general, and the same goes for sex work. Adding to that, there is a lot of inequality in Latin America, but there is also a big women’s movement (Eds note: The interview took place a week after Las Tesis’s Un Violador En Tu Camino was first sung in Valparaiso, Chile.) We should reflect more on how to portray sex workers and women in general.
You seem to be painting people’s nails ever since the book came out.
This has become almost a political act. When I was in Guatemala for a workshop with a hundred photographers, I must have painted 80% of the crowds’ nails, including a lot of men. Some of them had all the ten fingers pink and it looked so beautiful. I even painted the nails of two policemen. It was like a small life-changer for them.
It’s opening up in a small way. It could be representative of that feminine fragility that men are so afraid of, especially in countries like Turkey or Guatemala, or Mexico.
That was actually what some of the men were telling me. It kind of opened up something more vulnerable inside them. They were very emotional. And it was very interesting, after I painted all those nails, on the closing night, I was suddenly surrounded by men with rouged lips. I don’t know how that developed, but that might not have existed without the nail polish.
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