ORGANISER Manawatu Art Gallery, Palmerston North OTHER VENUES Manawatu Art Gallery, 2000; John Leech Gallery, Auckland, 2001
Wellington photographer Ans Westra is born in Leiden, in the Netherlands, in 1936. Seeing The Family of Man touring exhibition as a teenager in 1956 inspires her to become a photographer. In 1957, she emigrates to New Zealand, where she will become famous for documenting Māori life in a time of political and cultural upheaval. But not all her work focuses on Māori.
Behind the Curtain is a series of thirty-eight black-and-white photos documenting sex workers in strip clubs, massage parlours, and brothels in Auckland and Hamilton, as they dress and strip, wait for clients, and socialise. Westra’s images are far removed from the glamorised views of sex work in Hollywood movies. Westra shows ‘the ordinariness of much that goes on behind the curtain’. She focuses on the social and preparatory aspects of sex work, according her subjects both vulnerability and power in their mundane surroundings.
Westra ‘blends into the background’ to capture her direct and unaffected images. She holds her Rolleiflex camera at waist height, allowing her to engage in dialogue with her subjects without the camera obscuring her face. ‘People switch off me and they forget I’m there’, she says. ‘I have the knack of being invisible. I'm fairly laid back and quietly wander about with the camera.’
Maarten Holl asks, ‘What is Westra’s motivation? Is she trying to shock us? Or is she just catering to the voyeur in all of us?’ She queries whether Westra depicts the sex industry at all: ‘It’s only a series on working girls waiting for their next client.'