Saturday, July 30, 2011

No Man´s Land

I first found this story at Jezebel. British artist Mishka Henner has compiled 64 photos of women standing along roads in Spain, Italy and Romania and put them in a book. All of the photos were taken by Google Street View, the tool that lets you see very specific addresses at street level when using Google Maps.

There is the implication, put forward by Henner, that the women are probably sex workers.

The book/project is controversial. Some find the images exploitative. The women could not have given consent to be photographed by Google, or to be published and labeled by Henner. And, we cannot know if they really are sex workers or if they are simply women standing along the road - waiting for a ride, taking a walk or waiting for a child to come home from school. Assuming they are sex workers based on their clothing is dangerous to all women. And why do we assume a woman standing along a road is a sex worker - what would we think of a man doing the same thing?

But I will be honest, some of the pictures do seem to be of women selling sex. I base that in my own experiences of meeting sex workers, not on stereotypes from movies.

I do not like the title. If No Man´s Land is meant to convey the emptiness of the scenes, there are other words to use. Because, while there are no men in the selected photos, men are definitely an important aspect of sex work. If the women are actually sex workers, who do you think they are waiting for?

There is also the issue of Henner´s selling the book for profit. He was not the photographer - is it even art?

Google Street view catches random images of people all the time while recording the street view for geographic purposes only. I imagine Henner spent numerous hours looking for the images online, but he has only compiled them, maybe manipulated the composition. And now he is selling them. The anonymous women, their faces blurred, will receive no recognition, except being labeled as sex workers. I wish that he had made this an exhibit of some sort, but not for profit.

To give him credit, the photos are available for viewing online without any cost. And the composition is beautiful. And the images open up a lot of dialogue about sex work, privacy and about the nature of what makes art.

I think the pictures are fascinating and, despite the ethical concerns, I am glad the project was made. Sex work is marginalized and so we tend to think it exists only in the margins. But these daylight scenes are completely mundane, isolated yet not hidden.

The sites are so rural and vast, some without any buildings at all, you can feel the danger of the work, even in the open, under the sun. Anything could happen to them, and they would be far from help. Or at least, that is the sense I get from the photos. We don´t know anything about what lays beyond the border of the picture. As I said before, the composition may have been edited to increase the sense of isolation.

Many of the pictures of are of black women, while all of the locations are in Europe. The women could citizens of the EU, but many could also be immigrants from Africa or Latin America. The issue of human trafficking hovers over many of the photos.

Another factor to consider is the affect of the Google Street View camera on the captured scene. From what I understand, Google gets these images from a car that carries a camera and GPS unit, taking pictures every 100 meters or so. I do not know how visible the camera would be to pedestrians standing along the road. In some of the photos the women have their back to the road and the camera. If the cameras are visible, or the Google car is suspicious looking, you could imagine the women purposefully turning their backs to the road. Or, if they were walking on the road, they may have stepped aside and waited for the car to pass them - making it look like they had been waiting beside the road for some time.

The Google car probably influenced the scenes in some way.

What do you think about this project?

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