Agenda, Exhibitions

National Portrait Gallery: In Focus

Luis is an electrician and a single father of two; he prefers not to say his age. He first saw a prostitute at the age of 11 and has gone back every week since because he is lonely, paying roughly 30 reals (£7) per session. All Images © Cristina de Middel

Cristina de Middel aims to break down stereotypes with her series of photographs of prostitutes’ clients.

Each year the Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize exhibition opens at the National Portrait Gallery, showing off the shots that most impressed the judges in this prestigious worldwide prize.

Since 2015 the gallery has also hosted a simultaneous In Focus exhibition, highlighting a new body of work by an internationally established photographer. Last year, the honour fell to Pieter Hugo; this year, Spanish photographer Cristina de Middel will present images exploring the sex industry in Brazil’s capital Rio de Janeiro.

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As one of the main prostitution hubs in Latin America, Rio has seen the business flourish in recent years – particularly with the added attraction of the Fifa World Cup in 2014 and the 2016 Olympic and Paralympic Games. Rather than focusing on the prostitutes, de Middel homed in on their clients, placing a small ad in the local newspapers in June 2015, asking them to come forward and take part in the project.

“I was surprised by the response, but Rio is a very relaxed city when it comes to sex,” says de Middel. “There is not that much of a prejudice.”

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Shooting in the same hotels clients visit with the prostitutes, the photographer also interviewed each one, building a profile of their backgrounds and motivations for buying sex.

“I wanted to get some information that could help build a portrait of the type of men that use this service,” says de Middel. “Things that the female audience could be interested in to help understand the business.”

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De Middel shot to fame in 2012 with a tongue-in-cheek, semi-staged project on Zambia’s 1960s space programme, entitled The Afronauts, but took a documentary approach with this series. She’s keen to expand the project to other cities, including Mexico City, Bombay and Amsterdam, and hopes to attract more interest from print publications – some of whom have, she says, been reluctant to publish the series so far due to “lack of suitability”.

“This series is created to be published in newspapers and magazines because that is where the damage is done regarding the perception of gender inequality,” de Middel says. “There is still a lot to do.”

In Focus and The Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize 2016 will be on display at the National Portrait Gallery from November 17 2016 – February 26 2017. For more, go here