First, a word of warning: This story features photos about prostitution. But under the surface, it's more than that. It's a story about photographic access, and how a friendship led to an intimate portrayal of a taboo subject. These are not just photos about prostitution; they're photos about a woman who goes by the name Eden. Taken by Alicia. Her friend.
When I was studying photojournalism in grad school, one of the most important lessons I learned was that you can't make good pictures without understanding the story. And you can't understand the story without getting to know the people you are photographing. You have to build relationships — and trust.
And in the case of these photos, Eden trusted photographer Alicia Vera enough to let her witness some extremely vulnerable moments.
Alicia is from Miami, and is the first member of her family to be born in the U.S. She took a basic photo class at Miami Dade College in 2004, and says she was always interested in photographing strippers. She went around to every strip club in Miami looking for access, but was always turned away.
She enrolled in a photo program in San Francisco, and later answered a Craigslist ad to work in a "nice office space doing social media" for the adult entertainment industry. That job eventually got her the access to strip clubs that she had wanted all along.
While photographing in the clubs, Alicia met Eden, who was 18 at the time. "I introduced myself — we just clicked," she says. "We became really close friends."
At the time, Eden told Alicia that she was never going to do "extras" — exchanging sex for money. But she later apprenticed herself to a working prostitute, learned the trade, and started working out of a small town in Pennsylvania — which is where she got arrested.
Alicia, who is now living in Mexico City, asked if she could photograph her in court.
"We have a really, really close relationship. She had seen the work I had done on strippers and knew that I wouldn't portray her in a negative light. She's really excited about the photos — she loves them, she understood the photographic process," Vera said on the phone.
The result is the photo essay above, which was shot in March over a period of a week. The full edit (containing photos we can't publish here) can be seen on Vera's website, along with a longer story about Eden.
"I was surprised by how businessy it was," said Alicia. "Most of the time she was bored, reading, writing, smoking and posting ads. I began to see it as just another job."
Eden now lives in San Francisco but commutes back to Pennsylvania to work as a prostitute. Eden told Alicia she can make up to $20K in just five days of work. She puts it away in a savings account, and says she plans to quit by the time she's 25.
"She's a really creative girl," said Alicia. "That's part of the reason why I was attracted to her — she was different than the other girls. I wanted to show that not every prostitute or stripper has just one story."
And that is the story we present to you today. One of friendship, intimacy, access and trust.