2016 - Ongoing
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.