Charlotte Schmitz

Interview by Susann Tischendorf

Congratulations! You just won the first FotoEvidence W Award for your project La Puente. What is it about?

Thank you very much!! La Puente is a project that challenges the traditional narrative in which sex workers are portrayed in our societies, and give them the chance to participate in telling their own story. It does so through an innovative photography approach, enabled by the use of a polaroid camera, allowing the women to control the final photograph, and also choose their own poses, some applied nail polish on their polaroid, which included them in the creative process.

Why Machala? What brought you there? And how did you get to know that particular brothel?

When I was 18, I lived in the city as an exchange student. One day, my friends and I were driving out of the city and suddenly, there was a traffic jam in the middle of the highway. I asked surprised "Why is there a traffic jam here outside of the city?" My friends replied laughing: “That's our local brothel”. This was the first time I heard of La Puente, more than twelve ago. La Puente is the biggest brothel in southern Ecuador, located in the city of Machala, where around 170 women are working.

How is this project personal for you?

Most of my male friends went to La Puente. Sometimes maybe just to look at women, but they went. And this was probably the point, when I realized that girls and women are not as free as boys and men in our societies, but also in developing our own sexualities. Since childhood I had a keen sense of justice, and fighting for more equality, diversity and justice has become essential in every of my works and is my personal motivation to be an artist. La Puente is very much connected to my time in Ecuador, as an 18-year old girl, but also now as a woman, aspiring for change to a more equal society.

What inspired you to develop this particular project?

Since I heard of La Puente for the first time back then, I was wondering how life would look inside for the women. I always felt the injustice of patriarchy in our societies towards women, and sex workers are one of the most vulnerable groups, and this is where my initial inspiration came from. Many years later I returned as a photographer and started interviewing the women, and this project developed, without knowing in the beginning, where it would go.

In your project, you have several key characters. Are there any woman whose story touched you most?

The story of Magalie touched me a lot. She is in there mid-50s and has been working in the brothel for more than 20 years to support her children. Magalie is a very kind person, who is very attentive and actively listens, she became a very close friend. She also has a great humor, and we would hang out and talk for hours. And I seek her consultation on many situations in my life, especially in relationships, her wisdom has always amazed me. 

In the project, you made a deliberate choice to use Polaroid photography. Why? And why is it such an important part of your visual language in general? You have used it also in other projects I've seen.

Working with Polaroid creates a very intimate moment between me as the photographer and the people involved. You don’t really know how the pictures is going to look like, everyone holds the pictures, which is still white, until it slowly develops. Its small, its tiny, people still wave it, and it instantly creates this special moment where people are close to each other. Besides having this performative character by nature, it allows people to control their own photographs, and even change the outcome directly, by adding their personal touch. You can write on a polaroid, you can paint on it, you can really work with that piece of paper. That's something that I find fascinating.

Polaroid photography also builds trust, which is especially important when working in difficult environments, or in places, where photography is usually not allowed, like in La Puente. Polaroid is not digital and I always told the women that they should only give me their polaroids back, if they want to. Of course, I later digitalized the pictures; I reproduce them. But that's of course something I told the women beforehand. For me, it’s really important to give people the possibility to be part of the work.

But polaroid also just fits my character somehow. I don't like to take many pictures and with the Polaroid camera, you usually take one or two pictures. It's basically reducing my photography to the minimum, which is great because then I can just be present and have conversations. 

This is super fascinating. You just said that the women were able to paint on the polaroids. Specify this a little bit. You gave them some creative ways to express themselves. What did they do exactly?

The initial intent in using nail polish was to enable women to anonymize their own photographs, because some of them doesn’t want their faces to be public. It just so happens that nail polish was laying around, so I suggested that they use it to paint over their faces. But some took liberty and improvised and started adding glitter, more nail polish, and sometimes not even for the anonymity, but to make the picture more beautiful. It wasn’t me who gave them creative ways to express themselves, it really developed naturally through interaction, and I loved the final outcome. Nail polish came to represent a symbol for femininity.  

Through the nail polish, you seem to have made the women your co-authors? Do you think so as well?

Definitely! Participatory photography is an important method in the arts for me, and I have been working before La Puente on other collaborative projects. I indeed made them co-authors, they choose how they want to be seen in the pictures, and were able to be part of the creative process. It was also important for me to ask the women: “How do you see yourself in the picture, and why did you choose the nail polish like this?” Because, I was asked a few times by people, especially photojournalists, whether I am beautifying the place too much. Of course, a brothel is not a good place and it's definitely not nice. But, because I worked together with the women, it became this project. I would also ask them what they think about my project and everyone was very supportive. They, in fact, want the work to go out. They want people to see it. All of them said, "You come here and you see us as women, wives, mothers, and sisters. That's not how many people usually see us, who come here." The women’s opinion on their own photographs and also the project assured me that it is the right approach.

In your project proposal you mention that it is empowering to women because often men are covering brothels. Why do you think it is important that women are covering issues that men have often covered?

Like many industries everywhere, men are more dominant in numbers and output than women, and photography is no difference. The majority of projects about sex work are therefore done also by men. And I think it is important to have a women’s perspective towards it, since its by definition & reality a fresh perspective. Women working in the sex industry are often portrayed through the lens of society, rather than how they want to be seen. As a woman it is easier for me to access the women’s world as opposed to men. They are more likely to be open about their experiences to women, and that is in part due to how our societies are shaped. 

Do you think this can help create change in the photo industry?

Of course, asking these questions can help. Overall, I really want to see more change now in our industry. I mean, not just our industry, right? In every industry! There is no excuse for photo festivals to show 80 percent of works produced by men, and museums need to buy more art works by female identifying artists. Everything else is unacceptable in 2019! And we are not just talking about the equality between women and men. I want to see diversity in general. I think especially in the U.S. and in Europe, we tend to forget that there are a lot of other continents with inspiring and beautiful great photographers. And this is really worrying me, we need to break through that. And everyone needs to be part of it, especially decision makers. I do see change in our industry but it must be much more.  

Beyond the experiences you already described, how did the project impact you as an artist?

It had a huge impact on my art work. I know now that I want to keep working with participatory photography. Even if this wasn’t the first project, but it assured me that’s how much I want to work and even expand on it. I want to go much beyond my own photography, explore the possibilities of collaborative photography, to push boundaries, challenge perceptions, empower the people involved. I don't know yet where I'm going to go, but I'm very curious about it. 

Do you think you will continue the project? Is there still lots of curiosity for it?

For sure! The book is going to be a big part of this project because I have always envisioned it being a book. One thing that really interests me is that most of the women were always asking me, "So how is it in Germany? How are the women working there? What's the legal situation?" I didn't really have good answers to those questions, I haven’t researched a lot and I have never been to a brothel in Germany. So that is definitely something I would like to do, to open a second chapter in Germany. 

Thanks so much for the very inspiring interview.
May 2019 / Cologne, Germany
La Puente is available at the FotoEvidence bookstore and at Amazon.
Charlotte Schmitz web site.