Designing the Dreams and Photographing the Realities of Cape Town's Transgender Sex Workers

When photographing the marginalized, how do you find the line between celebration and exploitation?

Jan Hoek photographs members of society’s most scorned groups—sex workers, the homeless, the addicted—and some of his photos of them are so raw that they can be tough to look at. He’s been accused of exploitation, but does that label acknowledge the agency of the people who consentingly pose for him? Is photography inherently exploitative? Even the comparitively warm and fuzzy portraits by the Humans of New York guy aren't off the hook when it comes to these issues of ethics and photography. In capturing images of people from society's margins, Hoek’s pictures raise fraught questions about how photographers use the power of the camera, especially when poverty, addiction, or oppression have rendered the people in front of it powerless.

His latest project, Sistaaz of the Castle, may raise some of the same issues. Hoek traveled to Cape Town, where he got to know members of the city’s transgender sex worker community. Fashion designer Duran Lantink created couture based upon the South African women’s visions, and Hoek photographed them wearing the outfits. The portraits are presented at the Gashouder as part of Amsterdam’s fashion week, and will later be featured in VICE Magazine. For now, we interviewed Hoek about the project and got some behind-the-scenes photos.

The Creators Project: Why focus on trans sex workers?

Jan Hoek: That they are trans sex worker is just a side-issue, we worked with them because of their buzzling sense of style. Although we do think it is nice from this project that next to the fashion part it also shows the lives of girls who have lives so different than most of us have. And that we hope it shines new bright light on these girls that are normally only in the media in a negative way.

It seems as though it would be quite challenging to go to a different country, meet members of some of its most marginalized communities, and gain their trust. How did you go about doing that?

Well, a lot of people warned us that we probably would get stabbed and that the trans sex worker girls are extremely dangerous. I never take things like that too seriously. In this case we found out that the trans sex workers were organized in a group called Sistaazhood, that comes every week together at the office of SWEAT, the sex worker advocacy group of Cape Town. It ended up feeling like we now have a new family in Cape Town full of caring and loving new family members: the girls of Sistaazhood! We never felt more safe then in the hands of our new sistaaz.

What was the process behind making the outfits? 

The project is in two phases. All the trans sex workers in Cape Town we met are already incredible fashion designers themselves, so the first part of the project consists of documentary photos about their lives, but even more about their skills, creativity and sublime sense of style! The documentary photos are a sort of lookbook of the first part of Duran's collecton that we showed this saturday at the Amsterdam Fashion Week. In the designs he is gonna show, he worked further in the style of the girls and tried to add his own talent to their talent.

The second part are their dream outfits. For the dream outfits we interviewed six of the girls intensively about how they would like to look and live if they had all possibilities of the world, and we made especially for that dream an outfit and in the end made a dream photo, the ones that are gonna be shown in the printed VICE issue in march. For example Gabby wants to work in and own a luxury Victorian-style brothel called Lady Marmalade, so Duran made a luxury Victorian-style brothel manager outfit.

Your work has been somewhat controversial; how do you respond to the criticism that your photos are exploitative?

Well in my work I raise questions about exploitation, so it is logical that people immediately look at my work with these questions in their head. Besides that I think that all photography is exploitative to some extent, even if you make a selfie you exploit yourself. But that doesn't mean automatically that that should be problematic.

In general I see my work more as collaborations in which the voice and wishes of the models are made visible as well. So if models are critical about the photos I've made with them, I show their criticism. But in this case we worked so close with everbody from Sistaazhood, and we are so happy all together with the results, that I think it would be stupid if people would try to problematize this project. But off course I think people will try to do that, they always do. And maybe that is not even such a bad thing.

For more coverage of Jan Hoek's work, click here


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