A look at photographer Bronia Stewart's new project..
Photographer Bronia Stewart recently spent nine months documenting the offscreen activities of the men and women who work at Babestation, an adult television and phone sex line based in Central London since 2002. The project was chosen by the Photographers’ Gallery to be part of FreshFaced + WildEyed, an annual competition for emerging photographers out of BA and MA programmes. Having completed her MA at the London College of Communications, the Babestation series is the first step for Stewart in a wider investigation into the themes of hyper-sexualisation, and how the media’s portrayal of women has influenced the nature of aspiration. Here, she speaks about her experience behind-the-scenes, and how she was able to capture such candid photos.
How did you end up shooting at Babestation?
For some time I’ve been interested in themes of aspiration, why some people succeed, why some don’t; what drives people to certain jobs and careers. I started out looking at the adult entertainment industry, and from this I ended up doing a series of portraits, which was my entry point.
Then I met a guy at the Erotica trade show in Kensington Olympia who works for the Adult Industry Trades Association, and through him I was introduced to Babestation’s PR woman. The Babestation studios are on Great Portland Street, opposite Radio 1. I didn’t really know what I was getting into but I was taking every opportunity, and I ended up shooting there for nine months, sometimes going three or four times a week.
What exactly is Babestation?
It’s a dedicated channel on Sky and you can also watch it on the internet. You can phone in and speak to the girl that’s on the screen, though you’ll probably have to wait in a queue, paying all the while. While you’re waiting you’ll be able to see her talking to someone else –there’s normally some mad set design like pink velvet or something – but you can’t hear the girl until your call is live. It gets really busy after the pubs shut.
How difficult was it to forge relationships there?
It was quite hard at the beginning to get the sort of access I was hoping for. The girls took a while to understand what I was trying to do. I like to get engrossed in subject matters so it was a good experience in learning how to build relationships.
Were you surprised by anything at Babestation?
Initially I thought it was going to be all about fame for the girls, but what I found out was that it was more about a working life. So while some of them had 20,000 followers on Twitter, it was about being able to provide for their family and earn good money. Also, I want to differentiate between people working in the sex industry, and people working in adult entertainment. What prostitution and what these girls are doing has no crossover.
"I want to make work that I hope provokes some debate about why things are the way they are"
How do you feel personally about what they’re doing?
There’s an element of trust with these people that I have known for nine months and who I care about. I’m not going to be disingenuous and become judgmental in how I portray them, because that goes against everything I want to achieve. But I do want to make work that I hope provokes some debate about why things are the way they are.
What I started to realise is that the drive to do something like this is symptomatic of how the media has pushed the complete sexualisation of women. This is how you can get ahead; this is how you can make money. It’s easy; it doesn’t require education or qualifications. A lot of these girls have changed their bodies to become the perceived ideal woman. Massive lips, massive boobs, skinny, long hair extensions.
From the photos, Babestation seems like an upbeat place. What’s it like to work there?
Babestation is a proper business and it’s run as such. Also, it’s a nice environment. It’s a fun environment. Very secure, safe, comfortable. They’re treated well. All the men who work there are producers. In the photos I thought it was important to show the girls’ interaction with them because it’s very positive.
You chose to shoot on film. Why?
I enjoy everything about it. I enjoy the feel and the process of taking pictures. Also there’s a financial implication with film, so you become much more considered. A project like this really benefits from film because there’s no back camera, so your subjects will never see a bad picture of themselves. I think when you’re trying to gain trust this can really help.
I want to look at the industry of kiss and tell girls; particularly girls who sleep with footballers and sell their stories. Also, I’m looking at publications such as Heat magazine and the themes that come out of that: money, drama, body obsession, attractiveness. It’s a much bigger project – I’m excited.
FreshFaced + WildEyed is on until July 21 at the Photographers’ Gallery.
Text by Ananda Pellerin
Ananda Pellerin is a London-based writer and regular contributor to anothermag.com.