Dark Angels

Elizabeth Waterman

2016 - Ongoing

United States

Although statistics about sex workers and the sex industry are notoriously unreliable, those regarding strip clubs are a matter of public record. There are currently more than 4,000 such establishments in the United States, generating more than six billion dollars annually and providing livelihoods for about 58,000 dancers, bartenders, and other employees.

Exotic dancers give stage shows for both male and female patrons, typically demonstrating “tricks” on stationary or rotating poles, lap dances, and acts in private rooms. On a good night, a dancer can make two thousand dollars or more.

Popular media has long characterized strip clubs as gritty dens of depravity and ill repute, but there are many dimensions to the story. For the last three years, I have spent most of my Saturday nights in strip clubs nationwide, photographing and building a rapport with their dancers.

To give some background, as a professional voyeur, I’ve dabbled in and orbited many subcultures: drag, club, carnival. Lots of nightlife. For years I was hesitant to document the world of strippers and other sex workers but mesmerized by it all the same - the garish parade of flesh, the dark undertow of vice, the seamy basements of the city. I needed to find a way in.

I scoured the city for a strip club where I could take pictures. For months I had no success, but in July 2016 I finally discovered a place in Queens where the manager gave me the go-ahead. I came in week after week. And the dancers began to warm to me. I showed them my work, and they liked how I saw them. Soon they were volunteering to pose on the pole. I have encountered much to admire in the girls, much to be inspired by. And in ways I’m still sorting out, I know I’ve been changed by the experience. I know I’ve taken on some of their audacity.

Why strippers? Why is this important and culturally relevant? Regarded with lewd fascination or disdain (or both), strippers have been shrouded by the shadows and disrepute of the underculture. But their struggles – and their stories – are in the end very much like our own. The walls of presumption. The battle for integrity. The intermittent, hard-won glimpses of self-respect.

We live in an unsettling, electrifying time of social introspection, both nationally and globally. This is compounded by the furious emergence of movements like #MeToo; both women and men are finally examining the nuances of exploitation and the affliction of institutional sexism. We seem to be recognizing that we are - and have always been - defined socially and sexually by the murky corners of our interpretations, contradictions, and ambiguities. That is where this project goes. “Dark Angels” is be a powerful medium through which viewers can consider not just a fascinating, under-documented American subculture but also the range of connotations attached to it and the complexity of their own responses.

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  • Dancer does pole tricks at a club in Hollywood, California, on November 19, 2017. This talented dancer is demonstrating her athletic prowess on the pole. Many dancers are consummate athletes.

  • Dancer hangs upside down at a club in Queens, NY, on December 31, 2017. This experienced stripper performs a pole trick at a nude club in Long Island City, Queens.

  • A stripper counts her cash in Hollywood, CA, after her stage set, on January 17, 2018. This dancer is part of a street dance troupe on Hollywood Blvd when she is not working at the club.

  • Two dancers pose in the mirror as they get ready to go on stage, taken in Long Island City, Queens, on June 17, 2018. Both young girls are doing their hair and makeup getting ready for a night of work. This portrait was made on stage under the direction of the photographer.

  • Strippers get ready in the Bronx on October 14, 2018. These dancers are getting ready for work on a busy Saturday night. There are typically 10-20 girls getting ready at once in this small dressing room. Many are friendly with one another.

  • A dancer laughs in a gentlemen's club in Las Vegas. November 2, 2018. This portrait was made in a private area of a large Vegas club under the direction of the photographer. This club features a large upstairs VIP area and a steakhouse on the main floor.

  • A stripper in Hollywood, California performs a lap dance for a group of partygoers. This photograph was made at the end of the night in a popular urban club in Hollywood. At the end of the night, clients spend the most money. Men and women come to the club in groups for entertainment. Feb 19, 2019.

  • A stripper gives a lap dance to a regular client at a club in the Bronx, Jan 7, 2019. Dancers give one on one dances to clients at this club after they perform on stage.

  • A dancer steps off stage with money tucked into her outfit. Taken in the Bronx on June 10, 2019. Dancers like to display their success by tucking dollars into their costumes. This portrait was made on stage under the direction of the photographer.

  • Two dancers perform on stage together as dollars get thrown on them. This image was taken on March 6, 2019 in the Bronx. These two young women often perform together and are crowd favorites.

  • A stripper in downtown Los Angeles has dollars thrown on her while she performs a dance on March 15, 2019. This longstanding sports club in downtown LA has been a hotspot on Saturday nights for many years. Dancers perform dancers for clients in private booths.

  • A dancer gives a one-on-one dance on June 11, 2019 in Miami, FL. This dancer works in a popular urban club, and often gives one on one dances to clients on the main floor. Thousands of dollars are thrown into the air at this club on any given Saturday night.

  • A Bronx dancer moves around the pole on a Saturday night, September 15, 2019. This young dancer works in a small Bronx club where there is a long narrow stage. Dancers perform for entertainment, and then afterwards, give private dances to clients surrounding the stage.

  • A young dancer poses backstage at a club on October 7, 2019. in Hollywood. She goes by the stage name Charm. Most dancers use a stage name and keep their real name private. This portrait was made on stage under the direction of the photographer.

  • Overhead shot of dancers at an all-nude club in Downtown Los Angeles. Shot taken on November 19, 2017. Dancers will sometimes perform on stage in pairs to make more money. They design different moves to perform on stage and then work the floors for lap dances together afterwards.

  • A dancer counts her money after performing a stage set on October 30, 2017, in Long Island City, Queens. The dancers sometimes get hundreds of dollars thrown on them as they dance on stage. An important ritual is counting the dollar bills at the end of the night before going home.

  • Dancer celebrates backstage with her earnings in the Bronx on October 6, 2017. This experienced dancer had a good night and made lots of money in tips. Dancers work as independent contractors at this club, and tip money is very important.

  • A dancer performs a private dance in the VIP section of a Bronx, NY club, on April 16, 2017. In the VIP section, more contact between dancers and customers is typically permitted.

  • Charlie (stage name) gives a private dance in a VIP section of the Bronx on April 16, 2017. Charlie left dancing shortly after this image was taken to pursue a career in theater and entertainment.

  • A dancer scales the pole in Queens, NY, on November 5, 2016. This showy club in Long Island City has several 20 foot poles. Only a few dancers each night can scale to the top.