Emancipating Jane is not a photography exhibit about feminism. It is not an examination of oppressive patriarchal structures or collective choice or even individual choice. It belongs, rather, to the pretend category “first-person non-judgmental” or the real genre “participatory vernacular photography.” Both of these distinctions give the artist the freedom to sidestep the morality of an industry—if there is such a thing—and go straight to humanizing its subjects.
This approach works well for Emancipating Jane, given that the subjects in question are legal sex workers. There are few professions that can bring to mind a particular kind of woman so quickly and with so little to go on—think Julia Robert’s character/caricature in Pretty Woman.
These stereotypes, along with a history of sexualized images of prostitution throughout art history, are exactly what University of Nevada, Reno student Priscilla Varner set out to challenge when she started her MFA project more than three years ago. Varner is an award-winning photographer, military wife, and mother of two. She is not, however, a photographer in her own thesis show. Her role in Emancipating Jane skews closer to curator than that of artist as she spent the last 18 months placing cameras in the hands of 15 sex workers in four brothels across the state.
It took Varner about a year to get an appointment with the madame of the first brothel, but once one door opened, others followed, and soon Varner was having conversations with women from the Mustang Ranch, Bunny Ranch, Love Ranch and Sagebrush Ranch. After conducting interviews, Varner gave camera tutorials and instructed each woman to take pictures of her own life.
The resulting imagery is largely mundane—pictures one might see on a friend’s phone before they are deleted in favor of photos that include people. Images of shoes, stashes of candy, art supplies, and other personal belongings dot the walls of the student gallery. Among the 221 photographs in the exhibit, only two are portraits. The photos are grouped by “girl” and are accompanied by voice recordings of each woman’s interview. One question the audience won’t hear in on these recordings is “Why did you get into the industry?”
“To me that question is irrelevant,” said Varner. “The decision is made. You are there. When people ask why you went into the industry, it’s just reaffirming why they chose not to.”
Cherry, a courtesan at the Mustang Ranch, sees Varner’s fine art perspective as a counter-voice to the usual media narrative about her profession. “I think the media has a lot of Pretty Woman mentality going on. Art delves a little deeper, it looks at the person versus the group.”
Passing Cherry’s section on the wall, the first thing the viewer notices is a photo of her shoes—duck slippers included—lined up in front of her closet. This shot is a fairly common theme in the exhibit.
“A lot is defined in our shoes,” said Cherry. “Every girl took a picture of them. I think it gives an insight into our personal lives.” She went on to describe the new perspective that the project gave her about her own life. “I didn’t really analyze it before because it’s my life and it’s just happening. Then I started taking photos and I saw the other girls’ pictures. It was interesting to see what they value.”
When given the chance to have the final word about her show, Varner partly deflected, handing over control of the exhibit once again. “It’s all about trying to get rid of the power of the photographer.”