On Dreams and Screens

Ira Lupu

2019 - Ongoing

Relationships have been rendered increasingly remote, occurring over Zoom and FaceTime on the other side of a screen. Webcam models who perform on online streaming platforms, trading sex for money, have long struggled with how to communicate from one side of the screen to the other. What have they learned? Who are they? What do they have to teach us?

These online webcam models turn out to be experts in the field of online-based human bonding–their livelihood depends on it. By exploring their experiences, “On Dreams and Screens” investigates how intimate and real you can get through a web camera. It explores how virtual bodies manage to thrive and function in an online fantasy world, often (but not always) going beyond the transactional for something more authentic and lasting.

Ultimately, I seek to understand the paradoxical relationship of intimacy and distance, connection and disconnection, in a world newly transformed. As someone who has much experience with long-term, long-distance relationships, these are questions that I have long been asking myself. How do these relationships affect a person’s self-image and real-life perception? Who do we become when we exchange feelings over a keyboard?

I'm working on this project in tight collaboration with seven Eastern European female webcam models aged 19-24, who consider themselves non-professional or semi-professional, “girl next door” type, and are based in the US or Ukraine. Cam girls live in a shared web habitat, but the geography of the project makes sense: all leading camming platforms are registered in North America, yet Eastern Europe is the world’s major hub of webcam models. In the US, camming is legal. In Ukraine, it is not.

Humanizing sex work is an additional important goal of the project. Yet to keep my heroines anonymous (expect of the most "open" ones), I was looking for visual strategies to avoid straight portraiture while sustaining a deep, intimate connection with the viewer.

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  • A typical set up for webcam live streaming.

  • "Being raised in a religious, conservative family in a small coal town in rural Pennsylvania, I was always told that expression of sexuality was a bad thing', — says Alex who is an American-Ukrainian, Christian Orthodox believer, and an essential worker who secretly streams online from time to time.

    "I have this inner shame. But when I started camming, I realized that these things are normal."

  • Marina was my first entry point into the world of online sex work. She commissioned me to take portraits for a promo of her self-recorded music album. "I'm a cam girl, so what?" — the chorus goes in the main banger.

    Ukraine is still a patriarchal, conservative country at its core, and I was surprised that Marina is so open about her job. On a lucky day, camming may bring her an average Ukrainian monthly salary. What she also gets is a great deal of emotional pain, weirdly mixed with the joy of performance, self-contemplation, and communication.

    "Believe me, webcam modeling is much more about human bonding than it is about pure sex", she said on the day when this picture was taken.

  • "Nevesta" is Katerina's childhood nickname. It is translated from Russian as "the Bride", and it was her old dream to have her photographs taken in a bridal dress. As a virgin, Katerina worked in an underground illegal studio in Ukraine, where she was receiving only 30% of her real income, and 70% was taken by her boss.

    Owners of such studios often treat models like slaves. If a girl wants to leave the studio, they may blackmail her by sending her nudes to parents and university deans.

  • Liya, a medical student, is not very much inspired by online sex work, but it helps her sustain a comfortable lifestyle.

    "Regular clients often start falling in love with you, and in order to get more money, it's helpful to get emotional with them too. I hate doing that. But sometimes I do that."

  • "A lot of people say, why would you pay this random girl online to do these things for you when you can just watch porn for free. But the answer is, there are people that need to have a connection with a person in order to get off. They need to know a little bit about their life, a little bit about their personality."

  • Kamilla in a village house in the Carpathian mountains where she lived in childhood. It was not economical reasons that made her try streaming for a few years but a quest for self-empowerment, exploration of her own sexuality, and breaking the communication barriers.

    "When growing up, I was always feeling not cute and not sexy. Camming was a way to try to deal with my insecurities and to learn how to interact with males. Did I succeed? Yes and no. But I’m happy I got this experience."

  • Janna taking a selfie at the salty shore of Kuyalnyk estuary, her favorite place to go for nature walks. Most models say that one of the hardest aspects of the job is staring at yourself doing things for hours, which may bring shifts in self-esteem and perception.

  • "Camming is really different from being with someone in real life. Anytime you feel uncomfortable, you can exit that interaction. You can just click a button and you're gone”.

  • "At a point in my life when I was going through a lot, trying to move out of my very unsafe apartment, I had found an outlet in talking to my clients about that. One person sent me a song. The sample was a lady singing something like, You can do it! Now's the right time! All these encouraging words over a clubby beat.

    I remember thinking it was so surreal that this person actually cared about what I was going through. "

  • Natasha is an advertising student, an activist for animals’ rights, and an experienced webcam model who is at ease with her night job. She dreams to start her own studio and raise a few camming stars. Another dream of hers is to become a President of Ukraine, and she is all serious about that.

  • "Once, I've been camming for the whole night. In the morning, all tired, I started looking through a kitchen window. There was a bunch of people walking along a street: a young mother and her child, a middle-aged man, a few homeless people.

    All of a sudden, I started feeling all their moods and emotions so deeply in my heart that I started crying. Probably a side effect from bonding with my invisible clients".