“This project is not a classical work about prostitution it is rather about the inner and outer perceptions of women working in »La Puente« and about the general sexualised picture of women in our society”
170 women work in the biggest brothel of South Ecuador, in the city of Machala. It is called „La Puente“; the word „puente“ comes from the Spanish word bridge. It is actually a masculine noun (el puente) but was adapted to fit the context and thus feminized.
The photos in La Puente were developed in collaboration with the women working in the brothel, so it was important for me to choose a medium that would give them full control over their identity. Working with a polaroid camera gave the women the possibility to control and personalise their own photos. To protect their identity, many of the women painted with nail polish on their own pictures. It was initially used to hide identity, but quickly developed into a creative process and even a way of staging the world within the brothel. The women decided how they wanted to be photographed. Not only their selected poses, but also the use of nail polish tell about the women’s inner and outer perceptions.
– Charlotte Schmitz
How did you come into contact with the brothel in Ecuador and how did that develop into the idea for “La Puente”?
When I was 18 years old, I lived in Machala for one year, making an exchange year and living with a host family. I heard about La Puente for the first time back then.
One day we drove out of town by car. I remember the walled-up area, the dusty streets, a small dirty river and its bridge. In front of it traffic jam. I was wondering why there would be traffic jam just outside of town and asked my friends, who replied: »This is our brothel«. The biggest brothel in South Ecuador. I still remember this moment as shocking and was since wondering how life inside would look like, especially for the women. Prostitution is legal and widely accepted in the country. I remember that most of my male friends would occasionally go there
Ten years later, in spring 2016, I was back in Machala for my sister’s wedding and visited the brothel for the first time. I didn’t have a photography work in my mind, but just wanted to finally see it myself.
Today, the brothel is not longer located outside of the town as it has grown since then. There is no traffic jam anymore. I later learned from the women that it is due to Ecuador’s weak economy. I spent a few days in La Puente, recorded some interviews with the women and eventually started to take a few pictures, with the only camera I had with me – an instant one. Only later, after I showed the few pictures to an artist friend of mine in Istanbul and who helped me to understand the work, I realised that I should go back – which then I did in the end of 2016.
Was this the first time you experimented with an untraditional approach to classic photography?
The first participatory work I did was »Take me to Jermany«, which chronicles the dangerous journey of refugees towards Europe. It turns its characters into co-authors and reveals the vulnerable yet relatable side of refugees. Their personal handwriting on their polaroids humanises what otherwise is merely a still photograph. Many wrote of their struggles, their feelings of loneliness, and despair.
I wanted the work to be direct and participatory and it was very important for me to make the people I photographed to co-authors and to give them the possibility to tell their own stories, rather than writing them myself. I think that the combination of image and personal text compel the viewer to see refugees not as an abstraction, but as individual faces.
What were your major motivations behind letting these women tell their own stories?
During my studies in Photojournalism and Documentary Photography I was taught to be invisible – but I always knew I wanted the contrary: to be present, visible, and work directly together with the people I photograph. I see them as individuals and active participants in my work – the same motivation like in »Take me to Jermany«.
I personally don’t see another way of approaching certain issues. I don’t like to objectify the people I photograph, decide the way they want to represent and define themselves. I never liked telling people’s stories myself, so whenever it is possible and fits the content, I am asking the people to collaborate.
How did you get access to the brothel and how did you approach the women about this project? What were some of their immediate reactions? How did you work towards gaining their trust and confidence?
As everyone knows each other in town, I quickly met one of the brothel owners through my family and friends. La Puente has been a family business for 45 years. Speaking the accent from that area helped as well to get easily access to it. Once inside, I started by making interviews and asked every woman individually for permission to photograph them of course.
Taking pictures is prohibited in La Puente, as men otherwise could use the pictures to blackmail the women. A few women were skeptical in the beginning, but when I showed them the polaroids and explained them more, most of them quickly agreed. Only a few women didn’t want to be photographed. I think many were interested in being photographed in general, as it was something new to them. After a few days everyone knew me anyway, and many women would come later individually to me and asked if I could photograph them again. We always took pictures inside their own rooms.
I love polaroid due to many reasons, but mostly because it doesn’t require taking many pictures. So also here, photography took the smallest amount of the time I spent there, mostly I we would sit with some of the women, talk, hang out, eventually we smoked or drank a beer.
Polaroid also creates an instant intimacy between me as the photographer and the people involved. Once I pressed the release, the photo comes out and is blank. Even if I know my camera well, I don’t know exactly how the pictures is going to become. Meanwhile the tiny pictures are being held in the hands, often waved and everyone waits while the pictures slowly develops – I like this moment, which creates an instant intimacy.
Did it also bring along certain challenges and perspectives to learn from for a potential future project?
The photos were developed in collaboration with the women, who decided how they wanted to be photographed – they chose their own poses. Working with a polaroid camera gave the women full control over their identity. Especially the women whose families and friends don’t know about their situation, are fearing stigmatisation and social exclusion like elsewhere in the world. The polaroid camera gave them the possibility to control and personalise their own photos. To protect their identity, many of the women painted with nail polish on their own pictures. This was not the first participatory work I did, but strengthened my belief in keep working in this way.
Can you talk a little bit about the paradox between the liberation of telling your own story but still having or wanting to hide your identity?
I asked the women to only give me their polaroid when they felt comfortable with it. They had full control and were able to double check and even change the outcome directly afterwards with the nail polish. I promised them not to show the pictures in Ecuador and that I would decide carefully which ones to show online. But as it is not possible to completely prevent pictures from being spread after a publication, we talked about that they should rather hide their identity if needed.
I asked two of the women to buy the nail polish we used and made sure that all kind of colours would exist. In the beginning, I was expecting that mostly dark and nontransparent colours would be used, but the contrary was the case – most women chose light, glittering and nearly transparent nail polish.
One women explained the paradox between the need of hiding her identity and meanwhile revealing it a little bit, by telling me that she wants the people to be able to see how beautiful she is. If she covers her face completely with the nail polish, it would be gone.
Some of the women didn’t need to hide their identity, as their families and friends know where they are working. Especially the older women, who had worked there for 15-20 years didn’t care much about being recognised or not.
But the general question, how we anonymize ourselves if necessary, interests me a lot since this work and I want to discover it. I started to photograph myself while being in Ecuador, often nude and using color on the pictures as well, and the moments when I sometimes erase my face and thereby my identity, it feels somehow very cruel.
There are also some pictures, which are completely filled with heavy nail polish, like a painting, and even I can’t remember the faces of the women anymore.
What were the main learnings that you yourself walked away with?
Susan Sontag writes that making an experience is identical with taking a picture, and I believe this is very true. I mostly photograph the people who touch me, usually in places where I have lived. So also here, I did learn a lot personally from meeting the women.
This work is for me not a classical work about prostitution, it is rather about daily life and intimacy within their rooms and about the inner and outer perceptions of women working in »La Puente« and about the general sexualized picture of women in our society. As I am a woman myself, I naturally learned a lot about myself during the process of this work. Professionally, but even more personally.
As a photographer working in the contemporary global environment, how do you feel images can help make a difference for the lives of women around the world?
Often the traditional photojournalistic approach objectifies and fixates the people involved – and speaking of women working in prostitution and their representation in photography for instance, I find some works shocking. And without being too discriminative, but many have been done by men.
I tried to reduce the hierarchies between me as the photographer and the women involved, by creating a situation of active participation and to foster an immediate sense of agency in the subject. Working with polaroids, the women were instantaneously able to generate their own narratives reflecting that given moment. I think that this collaboration makes it possible to form a deeper and more complex understanding of the women in the brothel, because they represent and define themselves independently.
I believe in the importance of using my role as a professional photographer and artist to mediate positive change – I know of course that the situation of women around the world is not changing quickly, but changing how we see women is important.
Is this a method that could be employed more often as a way of giving marginalised communities a voice?
All images are courtesy of Charlotte Schmitz
To learn more about Charlotte’s work please visit: