Alexandra K. Dietz
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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.

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 “I wanted my face painted like two different people. One side is my wishes for who I want to feel like, my dreams and my hopes. This other side of me is loosing hope and feels dirty. I feel like two different people.” -Khosi

“I wanted my face painted like two different people. One side is my wishes for who I want to feel like, my dreams and my hopes. This other side of me is loosing hope and feels dirty. I feel like two different people.” -Khosi

 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.

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.

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.

 “I wanted this photo taken here in my office because I want people to feel my story. You see the condoms everywhere and plastic to lay on. I have almost been stabbed to death in this spot. After sex, he took out his knife and began to stab me. I am only alive because one man came from his car and picked up a stone to beat his head, that is how I survived. It is here that I can really think about and feel my reality.” -Mandy

“I wanted this photo taken here in my office because I want people to feel my story. You see the condoms everywhere and plastic to lay on. I have almost been stabbed to death in this spot. After sex, he took out his knife and began to stab me. I am only alive because one man came from his car and picked up a stone to beat his head, that is how I survived. It is here that I can really think about and feel my reality.” -Mandy

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  “This photo makes me happy. I like to share my problems with my babies so they know about life. I make my babies strong. Even if I have stress it helps me to tell them and they come to me with their problems. I know they will never go to the road because I tell them what happens there.” -Nosipiwo

 “This photo makes me happy. I like to share my problems with my babies so they know about life. I make my babies strong. Even if I have stress it helps me to tell them and they come to me with their problems. I know they will never go to the road because I tell them what happens there.” -Nosipiwo

 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.

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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