Downtown Divas: portraits of Russian sex workers in designer clothing (NSFW)
For Downtown Divas, artists Loral Amir and Gigi Ben Artzi constructed studio portraits of heroin-addicted Russian prostitutes living in a confidential city. Adorning their subjects in clothing by brands like Miu Miu, Louis Vuitton, and Alexander Wang, Amir and Artzi remove them from the context of their daily lives, and place them, sometimes uncomfortably, within the realm of high fashion.
Amir and Artzi encountered their subjects beneath a bridge in a city that, for the safety of the women, must remain unnamed. The artists explain that gaining access to the women came with its dangers and challenges. The area was dominated by drugs and controlled in part by dangerous pimps, and the photographers were often mistaken for police officers. Once they gained the trust of one women, others quickly followed suit, traveling home with Amir and Artzi to their studio. Sometimes, the women would lapse into incoherence due to drug withdrawal that rendered them impossible to work with.
Downtown Divas is composed of both a series of photographs and a short film, in which the women share some of their innermost thoughts on their pasts and futures. Artzi and Amir avoided asking questions related directly to drugs and addiction. Through the course of the interviews, for which they paid the women, the artists discovered that most of their subjects grew up in Eastern Europe; many were fans of Britney Spears and enjoyed dancing and drawing.
In many ways, Downtown Divas confronts and subverts the notion of “Heroin Chic” as a fashion statement. Thin frames, glassy eyes, and dark lids are realities for these women, their temporary designer threads becoming an absurd and ruinous counterpoint to the inescapable tragedies that have marked their personal histories.
Fashion, a field so often concerned with fantasy and escapism, operates here as a window into unfathomable truths, emboldening these often ignored, neglected, and abused women to share vulnerable pieces of themselves. Stripped bare of all the prejudices and preconceived notions that we might project upon them, the women emerge as young girls playing dress-up, allowed for just a moment to dream and to play before returning to the dangers that permeate their daily lives.
All images © Loral Amir and Gigi Ben Artzi