When I went to the American West, it blew my mind.
I was in my 20s and on a job as a fashion photographer's assistant in Toussaint, Arizona. The landscape just had the wow factor – all you could see was desert and mountains. We don’t have those wide-open spaces in the UK. Growing up, I’d seen so many images of America in Hollywood movies. But then going to see it for myself, it actually felt very foreign.
After that, whenever I was doing fashion or editorial shoots I would do my own projects on the side. I did a series on couples getting married in Vegas and kept going back to Vegas several times a year. Eventually the documentary practice took over, although I still do fashion photography sometimes to earn money – or if it’s a particularly interesting project.
I first got to know women working in brothels in Nevada when making a series of films for the BBC. The madam in one of the brothels turned out to be from Manchester. I think she was relieved to hear an English voice so she contacted the owner and worked hard to convince him to let me photograph there.
By the time I came to do Precious, I’d done Dead Eagle Trail, my photography project on Cowboys, so I could show them that to explain what I was trying to achieve. The fact that prostitution is legal in Nevada made it easier. I wasn’t doing a project about trafficking or people being exploited.
Once I’d won people’s trust, my only restriction was not to interfere in their work. So if a client came to the gate and the bell sounded, they’d all have to rush into the parlour and do a line-up. I had to be nowhere to be seen. Also, if I was setting up in one of their rooms and they got booked I’d have to quickly pull all my equipment.
I decided to shoot the portraits using a large plate camera because I wanted to make images that were painterly and make the women look iconic. Also the calmness and patience involved allowed me time to talk to them. Each shot would take a minimum of one hour by the time I’d set up, worked out the lighting, put the lights up and tested it out. Quite often it was a therapy for them as much as it was for me.
It was very much a collaborative effort. Some of them have issues about their bodies so we worked together to make something they were comfortable with. I decided to photograph them naked so their souls came through in the image. And so they didn’t look like they were obviously hookers. At work they’re scantily clad, with these great big plastic shoes they wear. There are pictures of these women on the internet so they’re used to seeing photographs of themselves. At first they would do glamorous sexy poses and I had to discourage them by saying, “No – this is about you”.
I think what they do, even though I wouldn’t or couldn’t do it myself, is extraordinary. Some of them have had really fraught childhoods. A lot of the time, you can see from their faces or their bodies that they bear the scars of their upbringings. They’re trying to turn it around for themselves and be financially independent. I’ve got huge respect for the women and I wanted them to be seen as real people, rather than what they do as a job.
Jane’s advice for young photographers:
Try and work with photographers. You can’t beat hands-on assisting. You get to see all different types of photography, whether that’s in a commercial world or an art world. That’s how I started out and it’s still the best way in.
Jane Hilton was talking to Rachel Segal Hamilton.
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Images from the series Precious, the working girls of Nevada, © Jane Hilton.