Elizabeth Waterman’s Moneygame is a five-year project documenting the human side of sex work
In a new book published by XYZ, the series shines a personal light onto the lives of dancers across New York, LA, New Orleans, Las Vegas and Miami.
- Ayla Angelos
- 25 June 2021
“Fringe culture fascinates me,” says Elizabeth Waterman, a Chicago-raised photographer who now resides in LA. Over the trajectory of her career, Elizabeth’s work has taken her across the country to capture its many fascinating faces: drag queens, strippers, actors, musicians and visual artists, plus “eccentric artists, burlesque stars, circus performers and club kids”. These are all but a few of her subjects, those who are often confidently placed in front of her lens as the snap of a shutter releases their authentic selves. Performance and art are two typical themes of her practice, too, along with the exploration of female sexuality, obsessions, portraiture and sex work. “I have been especially intrigued by stripper,” she notes. “The world of strip clubs has always been in the shadows. I wanted to explore it and bring it into the light.”
This motivation forms the crux of Elizabeth’s new photobook, Moneygame, published by Lisbon-based publishers XYZ. Five years in the making, the work is a detailed and personal foray into the industry of sex work, with more than 75 images presented inside and shot in New York, LA, New Orleans, Las Vegas and Miami. During the making-of, Elizabeth would spend the majority of her Saturday nights in strip clubs, snapping her surroundings and building relationships with the dancers who made a living in these venues. “At first, I was hesitant to photograph strippers and other sex workers, but mesmerised by it all the same. I needed to find a way in,” she says of the project’s first moments. Before gaining access into the clubs, she’d spend months scouring the city for a place in which she could take pictures. To much dismay, she had no luck for quite some time. But the tables turned in July 2016, as soon as she discovered a club in Queens with a manager that gave her the go-ahead.
“It took me a while to find my footing in the strip clubs,” she continues. “No one quite understood what I was doing there.” Then, after visiting week by week – in turn building a solid rapport with those who worked there – she was soon able to build trust. “I helped to collect the dollar bills littering the stage, and the dancers began to warm to me. I showed them my work, and they liked how I saw them. Soon, they were volunteering to pose on the pole.”
While observing her pictures, you can instantly see the connection made between herself, as the photographer – the observer – and her subjects. Like a wall had been broken down between them, she was able to capture the natural and candid moments of the women going about their work. This level of assurance was only heightened by Elizabeth’s efforts to get to know her subjects on a more personal level, striking conversations with them in the changing room and inviting them over to her Bushwick studio for a portrait. “Sunshine, from Queens, in her 30s, was supporting three kids,” says Elizabeth of one of her subjects. “Nylah sparkled with youth; she was chipping away at her college loans and fighting her way up,” she says of another. Although just two examples, these stories highlight the levels at which Elizabeth would genuinely approach her subjects and seek to learn more about their inspirational lives – consequently revealing the antitheses of what’s often assumed in the media.
“They are amazing,” she continues. “I find them powerful, beautiful and sexy, which is not at all how they are portrayed by the mainstream media. Here, in the United States, they are discriminated against in various ways, especially with the negative fallout of FOSTA-SESTA [a law regarding sex workers] and new employment regulations. They need a new image that better reflects their artistry and entrepreneurial spirit and I hope my work can play a part in creating that.”
In one image, in particular, we see a monochromatic snapshot of Gem and Tokyo outside Show Palace Gentlemen’s Club in Queens. This was four years ago, and the two young dancers – both under the age of 20 – are enjoying their break, having a cigarette and posing for a selfie. “They are having a blast, sharing their butts and encouraging their clients to come to the club,” adds Elizabeth. A further picture, aptly titled Brilliant laughing, Treasures Gentlemen’s Club, Las Vegas, Nevada, 2018, sees a fleetingly joyful moment wherein a stripper named Brilliant had an “unguarded” moment and shot out a laugh while posing for a portrait. She was “determined to be serious, but as we talked and riffed, she broke out in this huge laugh and flashed what I can only describe as a million-dollar smile.” Meanwhile, a third picture takes us to a dancer on stage, performing athletically as she curls into a bridge pose. “This dancer owns the stage,” adds Elizabeth. “An athlete of Olympian abilities, she backflipped, scaled the pole, and contorted every way. Dancers at this club in Miami take your break away.”
It’s plain to see that Moneygame shines a much-needed light on the more humanistic side of sex work. These are strong, independent women and deserve to be recognised as such. “Stripper culture celebrates women and their innate power,” concludes Elizabeth. “It’s all about revealing female sexuality, rather than trying to hide or devalue it. It hopes huge potential for women to explore.”
Elizabeth Waterman: Moneygame. Brilliant laughing, Treasures Gentlemen's Club, Las Vegas, Nevada, 2018 (Copyright © Elizabeth Waterman, 2018)
About the Author
Ayla was an editorial assistant back in June 2017 and has continued to work with us on a freelance basis. She has spent nearly a decade as a journalist, and covers a range of topics including photography, art and graphic design. Feel free to contact Ayla with any stories or new creative projects.