All That Breaks

In January, 2015, Embrace Dignity, a South African NGO that works with Xhosa women transitioning out of a life of sex work, commissioned me to photograph ten of their clients. What initially began as a straightforward documentary project, transformed over time into a collaborative portrait project that attempted to address each woman’s experiences, hopes, and dreams. I came to know and love these women as they struggled to develop positive aspirations, and worked with me to depict some of the darkest aspects of their personal lives.

In townships like Khayelitsha and Gugulethu where the women served by Embrace Dignity live, poverty is rampant, alcoholism is high, jobs are scarce. There is no running water, and no way to support children. Xhosa women are the backbone of their communities and the primary income-earners for households. Often they must resort to sex work to feed themselves, to sustain their families as single mothers, or to support unreliable partners in an effort to keep families together. Rape is common before the age of 13 and often overlooked by the young girls’ families in the face of ineffective and chauvinistic law enforcement, and the pressures of survival.

As part of the project each woman shared and described a person, moment or place that has defined her life. We then collaborated to choose a location and gesture to create a portrait that represented her identity or internal experiences. I then interviewed each woman about the portrait making process and asked her to describe the meaning as she looked at the image.

The result is a series of images in which the women challenge the label “prostitute” and ultimately discard it. Threaded through each woman’s life are stories of forced dualities: prostitute and mother, prostitute and wife, prostitute and daughter. To me the world is a dichotomy of beauty and pain, and I have never experienced that more than with these ten incredible women. Individually, these photos tell unique stories; however, overlapping commonalities create a narrative of survival and solidarity. The story shown through these portraits is dynamic and identifiable for all women that have loved, lost, and discovered the depth of their own strength through struggle.

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