The award-winning photographer lived with prostitutes in Nevada, capturing them for her new series, Precious. NSFW for nudity.
Jane Hilton has been chronicling the American dream since 1988 with her quietly powerful portraits – from down-on-their-luck cowboys to Vegas newlyweds, the award-winning photographer’s seen it all. Her latest exhibition, Precious, opens today at London’s Eleven Gallery.
Hilton convinced brothel owners in Nevada – where prostitution is legal – to let her live alongside and photograph their employees. The result? A sensitive, startling and most importantly, real look at a community of women at work and play.
You weren’t always a photographer – you studied music in Lancaster. What drew you to photography?
I wasn’t good enough to be a concert pianist, and thought music my end up being a very anti-social career choice. Although strangely, after deciding to follow photography I was away so much that I never saw anyone anyway. I was introduced to photography as part of my art degree course, and once I had a camera in my hand, I was hooked!
A lot of your work has centered around classic American imagery – roadtrips, cowboys, Vegas and the like – what’s the root of this fascination?
I was originally introduced to the states when I went to Tucson, Arizona in 1988 as an assistant on a three week fashion trip. I was bowled over by the whole experience; the culture and the big wide open spaces. I discovered Las Vegas whilst going to shoot in some very large dunes just outside. We were staying in a casino on the strip and it also just happened to be Valentine’s Day – so I witnessed queues of people lining up outside the chapel in the grounds waiting to get married. This was the start of a ten-year project where I returned to Vegas two or three times every year. I went on to photograph rollercoaster weddings, drive-in weddings and literally anything you could think of; you could do it Las Vegas!
What’s your creative process?
No particular process, I just photograph things I am curious about, and people I am fascinated with. If the results are interesting then I might take the project further, which leads to a slow uncovering process, and many weeks/months/years of tracking people down.
So where does the interest in photographing brothels come from?
I was first intrigued by the brothels after driving past the many signs on the side of the road in Nevada advertising them. They were discreet but still strange: “Shady Ladies 20 miles ahead”, “Cherry Patch”, “Madam Kitty’s Cathouse”… I just had to go and find out for myself. After meeting a few of the women I realized they had a lot more to say than I had banked on, so I ended up filming them telling their stories which the BBC decided to commission as a series. I did exhibit several photographs from this period in a show The whole Year In; but it was actually the films that everyone talked about.
How did the name Precious come about?
I was in the darkroom printing the girls photographs with my printer, and my assistant at the time bashing out ideas. I didn’t want anything obvious, just maybe one word that described my feelings for the girls. It was my assistant Anna that finally came up with Precious, and as soon as she said it, I knew that was it.
You must have set out with some preconceptions of prostitution before you lived at a brothel and started documenting the women there. What did you expect to find at the start?
I hadn’t even thought about it until I walked in. I was probably still very naïve, which actually in retrospect did me a favour. I am by nature very non-judgemental, and feel it very important to have experience of a subject matter before making any strong points of view about it.
Have brothels changed in any way since you started photographing them years ago?
Brothels are now so media friendly, with a lot of banter on social networks which fills their time ‘while they are waiting’. They’re now fully kitted out and refurbished with all mod cons, which was not the case years ago. In some cases they look more like a spa than a brothel.
Is there anything that surprised you about the attitude and the treatment of women in a legal brothel?
They are much more relaxed then I was expecting probably because they are secure, tested and legal. They can do what they want within reason. I wanted to show them more as ‘women’ than ‘hookers’ – which is why I ended up doing most of their portraits nude. Their clothes disguised their beauty to me, and I wanted to show their true souls. To me they were much more interesting with their clothes off where in some cases you would have no idea what they did to earn their money.
Were there any women you were most inspired by during the making of Precious?
One in particular has stuck with me, probably because she was so young and the story she told me was so harrowing. She’d witnessed her mother being murdered by her stepfather when she was six years old, alongside her three year old brother. Her and her brother were subsequently brought up by their grandparents. She carries with her the only photograph she has of her mum looking absolutely stunning in her graduation photo. She was so incredibly positive and vibrant: I felt very small and unworthy when I was with her.
Words: Elise Marraro (follow Elise on Twitter @PardonMe_Lissie)