In Argentina, it’s common to live with your parents until your thirties. Cue the popularisation of telos (aka sex hotels). Whilst telos are an alien concept to us, in capital city Buenos Aires, they are ingrained in the culture. Photographer Alice Zoo booked a one-way ticket to Argentina in 2015 and began capturing this important element of Argentinean culture. Exploring Argentinian sexuality, secrecy and hotel life, her photographs capture the essence of a way of living and loving.
After browsing around for the top telos in Buenos Aires, Zoo was drawn to photographing the physical representation of this culture’s sexuality. Despite the stripper poles, circular beds and sex-toy menus, “the reality is usually just sweat and smoke and peeling wallpaper” says Zoo. With rooms themed around space, the Moulin Rouge and Egypt, the telos cater for all people, all ages, all sexualities. From the seedy to the glam, Zoo left no telo unturned.
We talk to Alice Zoo about why she started this project, her preconceptions, and what she learnt about human connections.
What took you to Buenos Aires?
My original decision to go to Buenos Aires was quite flippant – I was sick of London and wanted to be far away! I’ve spent time in Argentina in the past and knew I wanted to return, so I just went ahead and booked a one-way flight.
A series of Argentinian telos is an unusual subject choice – what drew you to photographing Buenos Aires sex hotels?
The culture of using telos is well-ingrained in Argentinean culture, and very common, yet so alien to British sensibilities. I was drawn to that difference, and wanted to explore an aspect of that manifestation of another culture’s sexuality.
How did you select the telos you photographed?
There’s a huge database of telos online and I spent hours looking at photographs of every room in the city, ranging from quite seedy small motels to enormous, glossy penthouse suites. Generally I found myself drawn to the more elaborate themes, kitsch details, and imperfections.
Did you have any preconceived ideas of the telos before you visited them, and were they challenged by what you found there?
Before I started visiting them, I think I overestimated the stigma surrounding them, and felt quite nervous or even embarrassed to turn up. The more I went, the more I realised how commonplace telos are and how many people use them: I saw cool young couples going in and out just as often as I saw older people, and even a couple that must have been well into their late 80s.
What kind of atmosphere did these places present?
The places are designed to be as discreet as possible, so when you go in and book a room you speak to someone through darkened glass so neither of you can see one another, and it feels quite shady. But then once inside the rooms it’s all a bit more practical, so condoms neatly provided and towels wrapped in protective cellophane, etc.
There was a lot that I couldn’t capture on camera about the experience of being here, of which the most profound was the ingrained smell of cigarette smoke clinging to all the fabrics in each room. Lots of people go back to telos after a night out to have sex and smoke weed, and all the windows are sealed shut for privacy and discretion, meaning that the smoke has nowhere to escape and just sinks in. It was incredibly overpowering and heady – and I’ve since come to associate the smell of stale smoke with telos and sex as a result.
How did you gain access to the telos?
Like any other paying customer – I just turned up and paid for a room. I actually always went with my ex-boyfriend, so as to look more legitimate and not be the weirdo turning up alone with a tripod, and we had a laugh about the fact that he’d sit around reading the newspaper while I took pictures and we’d leave having totally not used the room for its intended purpose.
Do all the telos cater to a certain market or did you find different telos were structured according to what kind of age group they wanted to attract?
Generally speaking, I’d say that all of them cater to anybody and everybody, but obviously the ones in a much higher price bracket would be aimed at the wealthy and are decorated and furnished as such. There didn’t seem to be much marketing to specific age groups otherwise – I found the same features and facilities repeated again and again, so hot tubs, “stripper poles”, sex toy menus, round beds, mirrored ceilings, hanging chairs – lots of very Boogie Nights-feeling classic sex-fantasy stuff.
A lot of telos have themed rooms – what kind of themes were your favourite to photograph?
I enjoyed being in rooms that seemed to have little to do with typical sexual fantasies – so the space room, which I included in the series, or a room designed like the cabin of a ship. It made me wonder about the nature of fantasy and the way that novelty can be used in that context.
All your photography is analogue – how did this help you to achieve the woozy, eerie effect of these images?
I’m used to shooting using only natural light, but the telos, almost without exception, had no natural light at all, instead lit with a variety of coloured ceiling lights and lamps. All that artificial tungsten light seemed to work in a really interesting way on film and I think resulted in a much moodier, more evocative representation of the rooms than if I’d been able to have huge open windows with lots of daylight.
What did you learn about human connections and relationships from this project?
People are trying to make connections and indulge fantasies however they can, and there’s a huge amount of industry and commerce designed to satisfy those desires. I was reminded that the reality of sex isn’t that glamorous when it comes down to it, irrespective of lighting or complicated sex chairs – the reality is usually just sweat and smoke and peeling wallpaper.