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Giving 'faceless' sex workers a face

Brenda Haas
December 7, 2021

The "Faceless — Women in Prostitution" photo exhibition sheds light on the daily realities of female sex workers, which is still a taboo topic in Germany.

A black and white picture of a woman wearing a white mask and dressed in underwear standing in front of a shop lot
Despite legalization, prostitution remains a taboo topic in GermanyImage: Hyp Yerlikaya, Serie „Amalie“, 2021

Asked about their dream job as a child, they said they aspired to become doctors, lawyers, police officers or care workers for the elderly.

Instead, they now eke a living as sex workers — a profession that is still widely a taboo topic in German society, even though the official status of prostitution as something "immoral" was abolished by German law in 2002, and the Prostitutes Protection Act 2017 was designed to improve the lot of sex workers.

Nearly two decades later, the legal and social status of sex workers has not improved all that much and doesn't protect them from exploitative and criminal structures.

"Prostitution is legal, but women suffer extremely from stigmatization. Thus, they are often forced to lead a double life. It is still not 'a profession like any other,'" Julia Wege told DW.

Wege is the founder and an advisory board member of Amalie Mannheim, a counselling center for female sex workers.

The picture shows a white mask in the foreground with a 20 euro note on it on a table, while in the background is a woman seated on a bed looking outside a glass door
Poverty is one of the factors that drives women to turn to sex workImage: Hyp Yerlikaya, Serie „Amalie“, 2021

The hidden realities of the red-light district

"We have noticed that in society there is this widespread assumption that sex workers earn a lot of money and work autonomously and by their own choice. In some cases, this might apply," pointed out Wege. "However, a high number of women do so due to poverty and sell their bodies for a few euros to survive," she added. "Only very few people know the background, mechanisms, and structures of the red-light district; many are oblivious to its brutal reality."

To cast light on the hidden lives of female sex workers, Wege, together with the Reiss-Engelhorn Museums in Mannheim and photographer Hyp Yerlikaya, conceived a unique photo exhibition titled "Faceless — Women in Prostitution."

This "faceless-ness" — illustrated by the women wearing expressionless white masks — underscores their daily reality of having to hide their true identities while living unheeded on society's fringes.

A picture of a woman dragging a tricycle in one hand and holding the hand of a child in the other. Both have their backs to the camera
Some keep the reality of their sex work hidden as they go about their daily livesImage: Hyp Yerlikaya, Serie „Amalie“, 2021

Revealing personal stories

"The exhibition seeks to bring awareness, facilitate empathy and foster respect and appreciation for these women and their inviolable right to dignity," Wege explained, citing difficult life situations, financial needs, lack of perspectives and often the limited education as common factors that drove these women to sex work.

"Some women also told us that they were lured to Germany by false promises and worked here under duress for pimps. Through the photo project it was possible for them talk about their feelings, wishes, dreams and hopes."

Ten women participated in the project. They were interviewed about their life experiences and had a say in the creative process, deciding on the locations and scenes they wanted to depict.

Wege described them as having been highly motivated and appreciative of the efforts to include them in all phases of the project, adding that as word of the project spread, more women contacted the team expressing interest to get on board. 

The picture shows the back of a long-haired person holding a lit cigarette. An upside down white mask is attached to the back of their head
The masks help to both protect the identities of the women while showing how they have to hide their realityImage: Hyp Yerlikaya, Serie „Amalie“, 2021

Photographer Hyp Yerlikaya accompanied the women between 2019 and 2021 and took over 1,800 images — of which 40 were curated for this exhibition.

Working with marginalized women is not new territory for him though. He had previously founded an association called Yerlikaya for Acid Survivors e.V., working with and photographing acid attack survivors in Bangladesh.

Explaining that it was deliberate decision to steer clear of cliched snapshots related to sex work, Yerlikaya underscores the pivotal role photography plays in helping change perceptions or create awareness of certain issues.

"Photography can be a dangerous weapon if it falls into the wrong hands. I did not photograph the women in Bangladesh in their role as victims or in their suffering. I could have portrayed the subject of 'prostitution' in a completely different way, in a voyeuristic or pornographic way," he told DW. "We didn't do that, we focused on the women and their stories."

Picture showing a woman and a man embracing - the man has his back to the camera while the woman remains anonymous behind a white mask
The women had creative control in deciding where and how they wanted to be photographedImage: Hyp Yerlikaya

Thus, the black-and-white pictures not only starkly depict the women at work but also as mothers or while doing other jobs, for instance as cleaners.

In the exhibition, the images are supplemented with quotes as well as audio interviews with the women.

Although the masks might seem paradoxical at first, exhibition curator Stephanie Hermann explained to DW that it is a photographic interpretation of a life lived in hiding.

She added that the combination of Yerlikaya's pictures and the women's quotes open the complex issue of "prostitution" in all its sexual, social and moral depths.

The exhibition, which began on November 14, has already attracted a fair number of visitors and made many realize that they had completely superficial, and in some cases false, ideas about what a life in prostitution really means, Hermann added.

"However, this shaking up is exactly the effect the exhibition wants to achieve," Hermann said.

The "Faceless — Women in Prostitution" photo exhibition is open to the public at the Reiss-Engelhorn Museums in Mannheim until February 20, 2022. Admission is free.

Edited by: Elizabeth Grenier