Turning the camera on her clients, photographer Ellie English spent five years taking the photographs which appear in her latest monograph Does Monday Work?
London-based photographer Ellie English spent five years documenting her life as a full-service sex worker. Taking her camera along to hotel room assignments, she made anonymous portraits of consenting clients and captured incidental details of the interior spaces in which the interactions took place. Her upcoming monograph does Monday work? gathers together a selection of photographs that allow myriad glimpses into the opaque world of sex work.
While the book demystifies sex work by exposing the everyday mundanity of the job, English holds a great deal of space for ambiguity in her images. “I’m instinctively drawn to ambiguity,” she explains. “There’s something poetic about being made to feel something without being able to put your finger on exactly what it is that you’re feeling, or why. And ambiguity holds an honesty about the complexity of experience, more so than something that is sensationalized without any depth”.
Crucially, English’s images invert the usual narratives around sexual labor by turning the camera on her clients. Photographing the spectator as opposed to the spectated, she herself remains a tangible but virtually invisible presence, haunting the images but appearing on only a few occasions. “An interesting shift has taken place from the dynamic of worker and client to photographer and subject,” she tells me in a conversation over email. “The transactional relationship between us both remains apparent but, for a brief period of time, it has been altered.”
As a visual diary, English doesn’t seek to aestheticize her reality. She emphasizes: “It is really important for me to note here that how this project visually functions as an artwork is not my sole concern when sharing this work. I really hope that does Monday work? provokes conversations around the complexity of the world of sex work and the politics surrounding it.”
Take a look through the gallery above for a preview of images from does Monday work? Below, I talk to Ellie English about documenting moments of intimacy, the complexity of client relationships, and the vital changes that need to be made to protect the most vulnerable and voiceless sex workers.
Please could you introduce the project and how it began? In what ways, if any, did your initial intentions evolve over time as you worked on this?
Ellie English: My approach to making work is entirely the documentation of my everyday life, so the photographs which make up this project were initially mixed in amongst my broader practice. I photographed these situations as I did all other areas of my life. So, for around three years, the images which now make up does Monday work? sat beside images of my father, my lovers, self-portraits, and the various other interiors that I had been documenting.
I didn’t become a sex worker in order to create a project about it, I was already a sex worker and able to incorporate my work life into my art practice, or vice versa. Once I had decided does Monday work? was to be its own project, I continued to photograph my clients and the hotel rooms for a further two years, allowing it the time to become what it needed to become before it was ready to be shared publicly. A lot of the photographs are by their nature pretty dull, showing repetitive and mundane interiors. What makes it interesting is how they’re reflected on once brought together and seen in relation to one another.
There are many images which are important within this project that didn’t make it into this edit of the book, the project remains ongoing as I’m continuing to document this part of my life. It’s a not yet complete, continuously developing, documentation of the men I see for money and the spaces in which we meet.
“I didn’t become a sex worker in order to create a project about it, I was already a sex worker and able to incorporate my work life into my art practice, or vice versa” – Elie English
Why did it feel so crucial to turn the lens on the spectator as opposed to the spectated?
Ellie English: As a culture, we’re practiced in looking at women’s bodies, viewing them as sexual objects. Here, I refuse to give you that. I acknowledge my position but in a way that refuses for that to be the entire conversation. My presence is strongly felt within every image, but my actual physical self is only present in two.
Turning the camera onto the men feels crucial. I want this work to frustrate the expectations of what someone would expect to see when looking at a body of images about sex work. Rather than seeing photographs of sexualized women, the viewer is confronted with images of men – types of images of men that, as viewers, they are not used to seeing.
The lack of clarity as to who these men are and what we actually do together can leave the viewer uncomfortable. So many questions are provoked. A male figure is seen awkwardly leaning outside the frame, you’re unsure whether he’s hiding his identity from him from my camera or whether I’ve captured him already in this position. Another man is on his phone from him, but to whom? Is he on a work call? Maybe it’s his wife of him? I want the viewer to feel something, to spend time really looking, to experience a multitude of emotions.
You hold a lot of space for ambiguity in the images…
Ellie English: I feel that I only have the right to make work about that which I have direct experience with, and the experiences that I have had as a sex worker are broad and far from being black and white. This story is complex. I’m not attempting to show this world in its entirety, but intentionally denying the total view, showing only snippets. It’s frank and raw, but ambiguous because it has to be this way.
Hans Ulrich Obrist described the task of curating as making ‘junctions’, allowing ‘different elements to touch’. I was aware of taking the viewer on a journey, how each photograph transitioned to the next was imperative for communicating the reality of what my job entails. Moving from one hotel room to another, from fulfilling one man’s desires to the next. Creating a sense of the unknown of what will be encountered with each turn of a page.
In what ways, if any, did the process of making these images clarify any questions you had in your mind about sex work?
Ellie English: Creating work that is purely documentation of personal experience is, in some ways, therapeutic. It requires constant reflection in such an intensely in-depth way. Although the work is diaristic in how it is made, when it comes to the process of editing there has to be a separation from it being just about my life. For the work to be successful as good art, the photographs have to function beyond simply being a visual diary. They have to speak also to the medium in which they’re made, and they have to be relatable in some way… provoking reflections on intimacy, sexuality, and the multiplicity of human experience.
There seems to be a strong sense of reciprocal trust between you and the client. Could you tell me about any particular images that you feel really embody this intimacy?
Ellie English: Those who have allowed me to photograph them knew that my intentions were never negative, so felt comfortable enough to allow my camera access into the space. The one photograph where anyone’s identity is recognizable was taken in 2019 and shows me and a client kissing. The age gap is strikingly obvious and, as an image, it’s confrontational yet surprisingly gentle. There’s a delicateness to it that captures a sense of intimacy and the need to feel accepted and close to another human being.
Some subjects reappear throughout the book over a period of several years, while some only appear once and then never again. Each has an entire story of their own, yet I’m unlikely to discuss publicly what these stories are – it’s not what this project is about. The reasons these men have ended up in my company vary from one to the next, what drives all of their desires may differ but they are each undeniably human.
“This story is complex. I’m not attempting to show this world in its entirety, but intentionally denying the total view, showing only snippets. It’s frank and raw, but ambiguous because it has to be this way” – Ellie English
Is there anything specific you would like to communicate about the world and the complex relationships you are portraying? What would you most like to evoke in your audience?
Ellie English: The lives of sex workers are complex, our safety, wellbeing, and security are rarely guaranteed. The decriminalization of our work is required to begin the changes needed within society to actually help protect the rights of sex workers, enabling a system that offers us fair access to resources. Real-life change in legislation is needed, a celebration of freedom of choice or being seen as respected is simply not enough, it does not address issues of poverty, homelessness, addiction, and abuse that so often lead women into this line of work.
These political conversations need to be centered around the lived experiences of full-service sex workers, specifically the most marginalized groups amongst us. Those who are often unable to share their stories… sex workers of colour, migrant sex workers, disabled sex workers, and those part of the LGBTQ+ community. I recognize my privilege as a white, university-educated woman, it is part of what has enabled me the ability to be publicly out as a sex worker. This work on its own does not address these issues, but I really do hope it creates a space that does encourage these conversations to take place.
does Monday work? launches at Photobookcafe on May 18, 2022