Photographer Jane Hilton talks to Polari Magazine about her book and exhibition Precious, a candid look at the lives of working girls in Nevada.
Break A Heart Rd. (Click images to enlarge)
In her last book, Dead Eagle Trail, Jane Hilton photographed the world of the contemporary cowboy. “I wasn’t really interested in photographing them against sunsets, or branding cattle, all the obvious things,” she said. “So I started to take portraits of cowboys at home, in amongst all the things that mean everything in the world to them.” With her latest work, Hilton returns to the other side of America, the side that is not polished for export, but one that is about real people living real lives. The exhibition and book Precious is about the women working in the brothels that are off the beaten track in Nevada.
Where did the idea come from to photograph prostitutes?
It was something I had done already in 1998 when I did an exhibition with Noble And Webster. It was called The Whole Year In, which was inspired by the neon sign from the Nick Cave film. I went to Madam Kitty’s Cathouse to produce this work but I also did a bit of filming and I gathered these interviews with the girls talking on camera. I showed my friends and they said, “Oh my God, Jane… You have to do something with this!”. So then I took them to a few production companies and ended up getting the BBC to commission me, with a producer, to go back to Nevada and do ten films. That took nearly three years.
It was a subject matter that I knew a lot about and after Dead Eagle Trail the publishers suggested I had to do something else and soon. I wanted to do something I had already covered, I didn’t want to do another ten years of research, and I always felt that the original project was unfinished business. I thought the filming caught the essence of why they did what they do and the narrative was really good. However, these were women who I think are amazing and I don’t think I showed that. I thought that a still photo would iconize them in a way and show that they’re not just hookers. That’s what I really wanted to show and that’s why they don’t have clothes on. I was doing portraits of some amazing women who have been through some really awful hard times and survived. I wanted to interpret them and turn it into something positive. I took their clothes off so you could read their soul and so that you would see them, rather than what they did for a living.
What’s very interesting about the exhibition is that you see these images without any text. But there is text in the accompanying book, and that text brings a whole other layer to the images. What was the reason behind displaying them without descriptions?
It was done a bit like the book. In the book you only have their names with the images but you can refer to the back to get their text. I strongly feel that if you had some of their stories next to their portraits it would have tarnished your way of looking at them. The young black girl in full frontal probably affected me the most. Her name is Cassidy and she’s in her early twenties. After talking to her she told me she witnessed her mother being murdered when she was six. Her three-year-old brother was in the room too and they ran to a neighbour’s house who sorted them out and distracted them with cartoons. It’s such a harrowing thing and she was brought up by her grandmother. She carries around in her suitcase a photograph of her mother taken at graduation looking absolutely beautiful. It was the only photo she had of her and takes it everywhere and it’s completely scuffed up. I just think if you had the text it would be unavoidable, but the text is there if you want to read it after, so it’s the viewer’s choice.
How did you negotiate with the girls to allow you into their lives in this way?
Time, and the fact I was on my own. I was in the middle of nowhere so sometimes I would be talking to the girls in the brothels and it would be miles to the next town. So most of them put me up which meant staying in these brothels into the early hours of the morning, which is when they get really bored while they’re waiting for clients. Also, I think they were just really curious, they don’t get many English visitors in the middle of Nevada. [Laughs]. So I’d bide my time and eventually ask them if they were interested. Some of them couldn’t as they did not want to be identified. But a lot of them were game and nowadays most of them are on the Internet anyway so it was not such an issue. They got what I was about because I had my cowboys book with me and they could see what I was trying to do. They knew it wasn’t porn, put it that way!
What is your fascination with Americana? If these photos were done in the UK they would feel very different. When you view the exhibition, you are looking at an other world – not just the world of prostitution, but geographically and physically we are removed from it and so it almost feels romanticized.
I feel exactly the same. I totally agree. There’s a paradox in all of this, in that there’s this glamorous element because it kind of knocks on Hollywood’s door. That’s Americana… it’s kind of glamourous, isn’t it? What we all aspire to when we were kids growing up. I’m not sure if that feeling comes from nostalgia.
I think your images do have a sense of nostalgia about them. They feel like photographs of a forgotten time, which is funny because it’s a time I’ve never experienced so how can it feel that way if I’ve never been there. I think it’s the lighting and the tones you use. I’m assuming you don’t use lighting for these photographs?
Oh I do. But only some of them are … but where possible I use natural light because that’s what inspires me. You can’t beat God’s light, you just can’t, it’s just beautiful. But it’s not always there in a brothel. One of the things I was aware of was that I was going into a dark hole, and how am I going to get the atmosphere out, lighting-wise. It was a challenge actually.
Bella’s Sign at Night
It’s a shame that there aren’t more of the landscapes because you get a real sense of the light, you feel the light in every shot. You can’t cheat that.
That was deliberate. It was muted and originally when it was edited the landscapes featured. Unlike the Dead Eagle Trail book, where it was more about cowboys and where they live, this one is so much more intimate and had to be about the women. I felt the landscape would dilute the message. In the end, it was a compromise and they were featured on the end sleeves and I’m pleased with them.
Going back to the process, if you have a whole set of lights and equipment, did that make the experience feel more professional for the girls? Did it make it feel more glamorous to them?
Maybe for them. For me it was more of a challenge. Just getting all my stuff there without an assistant, setting up on my own, creating a mini portable darkroom, offloading all the film, remembering what was on them; the logistics were more challenging for me. I’ve got a car in America and I put all my stuff in the back. I think the girls just got used to seeing me unload the equipment which took about a half an hour but I do think they felt it was a very special process for them.
I started sending them on Polaroids from the shoots, which is really precious in itself because it doesn’t really exist anymore. I don’t know what they’ve done with them, but they were delighted. They liked to see that instant print to stick on their walls and compared each others. It was fun in a way.
It’s nice that the value of that print is a two-way exchange.
Absolutely! I did an interview for the Royal Photographic Society today and they were asking me all technical questions about digital versus film. There’s a magical thing with film that you just can’t get with digital. To end up on a plane with twenty boxes of 5/4 film, not knowing if any of them have come out, having to leave your cameras behind because of hand luggage restrictions. It was so stressful and not for the faint hearted going home and crossing fingers that they all came out. But there’s something magical and wonderful about that which I wouldn’t change in the world. You feel like you’ve earned it.
Did you experience any difficulties in getting the girls into an emotional and psychological space where you could photograph them?
Well there was one in particular who had issues with taking her clothes off so badly it took her two hours to do it. Her boyfriend was there, trying to give her confidence and it was a weird situation because at the end of three hours or more, I discovered that she had been fostered until she was seven and when they went out they would tie up her arms and put her in a cupboard so they knew she wasn’t moving around. Because they tied up her arms, she never used them. So she grew up with two arms with no muscles. She was in the brothel to earn the money to pay for the surgery in order to sort it out. Things like that would pop up and blow your mind and makes you feel so lucky. She didn’t want to be photographed originally. It was like doing therapy, both for her and me and I really wanted to help her through so she could take her clothes off and complete the shoot.
Do you think you’ve completed this project now?
I think so! My Mum and Dad will be very pleased to hear it’s over. [Laughs] When people ask them what I’m doing in America, they just say “Oh a historical series!”.
Do you feel that photographing this ‘other world’ of Americana in a very distinctive aesthetic is your niche, and is it one that you’ll keep revisiting?
I’d quite like to do a roadtrip up North in England I have to say. I did it a few years back for an article in the Telegraph, photographing toddlers doing ballroom. I went to Bolton and I was shocked and horrified at how poor it was and I thought I should really spend time up there and show how it really is. But yes, I think I’ll be going back across the Atlantic. I’m stuck on America and I can’t get off it.
Precious is on exhibit at Eleven Gallery from April 26 to May 25, 11 Eccleston Street, London, SW1W 9LX. It then transfers to Nailya Alexander Gallery, 41 E 57th Street, Suite 704, NY 10022, where it runs from June 12 to July 13.
The book Precious is £35. Click here to buy Precious from Schilt Publishing.