It’s Halloween night in San Francisco and Alicia stands outside the smoky neon lit entrance of the Roaring 20’s ’s strip club. Her company of dancers are dressed in a myriad of sexy 20’s era costumes including a sultry nurse outfit and an Eastern courtesan, etc. It’s at this particular club that many sex workers and professional dancers begin their careers in the industry. Tonight she is tasked with photographing the dancers for social media promotion. In fact, she was hired by the marketing department that oversaw 11 clubs in the San Francisco area. This was the first time Alicia, a professional photographer and not a professional dancer, started photographing the lives of sex workers. This marketing job was a segue into a larger, more personal interest explored through her art. “I was interested in knowing what their motivations for becoming a dancer were and how they felt about the work they were doing. What I found the most compelling was that the women come from a variety of backgrounds and their motivations were all over the place. We, as a society, have an image of what a stripper looks like and the women I met broke all of those stereotypes.” Since this project, Alicia has explored the sex work industry photographing sex workers, including dancers in San Francisco and prostitution in other cities. For Alicia, the work isn’t simply about producing evocative images. She relies on built rapport and trust in her relationships with those she photographs.
Alicia tells us that “there are approximately 5,000 strip clubs in the U.S alone and an estimated 300,000 women who have worked as strippers across the country. Promises of money and power lure thousands of women to the sex industry every year despite their social, ethical, or economic backgrounds.” Due to the volatile environment in which many of these dancers work, a strong community has formed among its participants. Alicia’s photography project “Stripped” explores this community and its sometimes tender, sometimes gritty moments. Alicia continued to photograph a particular woman who transitioned into prostitution after working at the San Francisco club. Eden, the project title, focuses on a woman whose “desire to travel the world and support herself financially” caused her to relocate across the country to work as an exotic dancer and later as a prostitute. Alicia writes about the project, “While I began this project to document the world of prostitution, this project is ultimately about a woman’s struggle to find herself.”
Alicia has continued to immerse herself in other profound photography projects focusing on underrepresented communities in mainstream media. In July 2018 her photos accompanied an NPR article on El Salvadorian gang members turning to the Evangelical Church as as way around or out of gang life. Also in July 2018, her photos ran alongside an article in The Intercept on immigrants from El Salvador grappling with US asylum and its restrictions. Earlier in her career, Alicia photographed for Aljazeera. In 2013 she captured the theatrically homosexual wrestling circuit in Mexico. The article explored the gay-for-pay fighters in the hypermasculine world of lucha libre, an entertainment-wrestling circuit with both professional and amateur levels.
Her project titled Tania featured an aspiring female professional boxer in a notoriously formidable and violent neighborhood in Mexico. The project explores gender and class issues in Mexico in general. In particular it explores Tania’s boxing training at “Gimnasio Gloria” in Tepito, a neighborhood known as “Barrio Bravo,” or “fierce neighborhood.” This neighborhood “has been populated by the lower class since its inception and has been under siege by criminals and cops alike, earning it one of the highest crime rates in Mexico City - 13.9% percent, according to a UNAM study. City statistics also claim that 14.4% of its jail population resides there,” she tells us. The neighborhood of Tepito has a long history of boxing and is the home of many now famous boxers that have made it into the world stage. Such names include world champions like Raul Burgos, Raul Macias and Ruben Olivares. Alicia’s photo series about Tania focuses on Tania’s life in Tepito where Tania lives with her four year old son and mother. The project is “an ongoing story about Tania’s life and how it relates to social class and gender issues in Mexico,” Alicia tells us.
From the project "Tania". The caption is: Tania gets hits by her opponent during a boxing match in the Tepito neighborhood or "Barrio Bravo" (fierce neighborhood) in Mexico City. "
Alicia’s work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, BuzzFeed News, Bloomberg, Al Jazeera America, Condé Nast Traveler, Airbnb, Nestle, Malala Fund, Delta Sky Magazine, Dwell, Smirnoff Vodka, Neon, Lufthansa Magazine, Christianity Today and Vice.
Despite the wide range of commercial work, Alicia’s interest seems to be in communities underreported in mainstream media and lifestyles that find some special resonance in her own life. She seems drawn to the things that she is particularly removed from, yet shares a kinship. For Alicia, the raw exuberance and lifestyle of the sex workers conjures up notions of rebellion, and particularly, rebels of society. Alicia’s own nefarious past strikes a near miss in these same convoluted waters. Alicia and the women she photographs present like a parabola with a shared vertex, who from life experiences have paths that arch in equidistant yet widely opposing directions.
“With my personal work, I choose themes that speak to me on a personal level. With sex work related projects, for example, I felt that I related to these women somehow. They are, in a sense, rebels of society and I was a total rebel when I was a teenager. I did drugs, was promiscuous, was running away, etc. With strippers, I wondered why they had taken this step to become a dancer and why I hadn't. It was important for me to explore this because it gave me a better sense of who I am and in turn, I was able to break stereotypes with my images."
Also important to Alicia are stories related to “migration or women's issues because it's important to get these stories out there and hopefully bring some change to the world,” she says.
Alicia grew up in Miami, Florida and studied at Miami-Dade College in South Florida and the Academy of Art University in San Francisco, CA. Eventually, she moved to Mexico City to freelance full time and rediscover her family's roots. But her career didn’t exactly boom immediately. In fact, it took Alicia eight months to secure her first editorial job. Gradually she began securing consistent gigs. She received recognition when she was awarded the Getty Images Emerging Talent Award. At this point she was actively filling out her freelance portfolio.
Alicia did most of her photography without formal academic training. Most of her training is from friends and workshops, taking advantage of every opportunity she could find. She is a graduate of The Eddie Adams Workshop, the only tuition-free photojournalism seminar that teams 100 handpicked photography applicants to pair up on collaborative work with professional photographers who volunteer their time to work with promising young talent. She now works between her hometown of Miami, FL and Mexico City.
Alicia took time to interview with Mythogynist about the early days of finding her professional stride, why marginal communities make such great photography subjects, and the hardest projects she has ever worked on.
Can you list some of the places you have traveled to photograph?
Oaxaca, Chiapas, Queretaro, Nayarit, Guanajuato, Nuevo Leon, Mexico City in Mexico. San Salvador and surrounding towns in El Salvador, Puerto Rico, San Francisco, New York City, Miami, Orlando, Gibsonton, Sarasota, etc.
What theme or purpose fuels the kind of projects and work you choose? Why is this important to you?
With my personal work, I choose themes that speak to me on a personal level. With sex work related projects, for example, I felt that I related to these women somehow. They are, in a sense, rebels of society and I was a total rebel when I was a teenager. I did drugs, was promiscuous, was running away, etc. With strippers, I wondered why they had taken this step to become a dancer and why I hadn't. It was important for me to explore this because it gave me a better sense of who I am and in turn, I was able to break stereotypes with my images. With assignment work, I tend to pitch stories related to migration or women's issues because it's important to get these stories out there and hopefully bring some change to the world.
Your website’s biography mentions that one of your first big photography projects was documenting the complex lives of sex workers. Can you tell us how this project came about and what you found compelling about the experience?
I began photographing the lives of sex workers when I landed a job at the marketing department for eleven strip clubs in San Francisco, CA. It's a subject I had been looking into working on for years. When asked if I wanted to take "sexy" photos of the dancers for our social media pages, I jumped on the opportunity knowing that this would give me a chance to get to know the women and the types of clubs we had. For my project, I chose to focus on the Roaring 20's strip club where many dancers got their start in the industry. I was interested in knowing what their motivations for becoming a dancer were and how they felt about the work they were doing. What I found the most compelling was that the women come from a variety of backgrounds and their motivations were all over the place. We, as a society, have an image of what a stripper looks like and the women I met broke all of those stereotypes.
From the project "Stripped". The caption is: Dancers from the Roaring 20's strip club in San Francisco, CA stand at the entrance of the club on Halloween night.
Your biography also mentions that after you returned to Mexico City to rediscover your family roots. What does this mean to you and do you feel like you have done so?
Before I was born, my parents migrated from Mexico to the US and even though my parents brought my brothers and I back to Mexico twice a year, I had always wondered what I would have been like had we stayed in Mexico. I also felt a need to understand my parents' background. What was their life back before they moved to the US? When I finally made the move to Mexico, I got in touch with family members- many who I had never met before. Through them and visiting my parents' hometown, I have collected bits and pieces of information that helps me understand my family's history.
How has rediscovering your family roots affected or driven your career?
Even though my projects are not family related, it has motivated me to explore and get a general sense of the issues facing the country. In turn, it has pushed me to pitch stories all over Mexico.
What project did you conduct with the assistance of the International Womens Media Foundation?
With the support of IWMF, I worked on a couple of stories with reporter Emily Green: the effects of climate change on coffee, migrants planning on heading to the US despite the asylum crackdown, and the role of the evangelical church in gang life in El Salvador.
At what point did you begin to realize your career as a photographer was in fact, a career? How did you get to this point?
While I began taking photos at around sixteen years old, it wasn't until I began shooting long-term personal work that I started taking photography seriously. When I decided to freelance, I had no idea what I was doing so I contacted photojournalist friends who helped me put together a portfolio to show editors. When I finally made the move to Mexico, it took me eight months to land my first editorial job but work was still slow. It wasn't until I won the Getty Images Emerging Talent Award that I began landing jobs consistently. This is when I knew it had turned into a career.
If you could come up with a project that had no funding or logistical limitations as your magnum opus, what would be?
I'm not sure if there's anything specific in mind but I am interested in exploring the state of Oaxaca in Mexico. I'm headed up there in a few weeks to explore the cultures of the Mixe indigenous community. Don't want to share too many details yet.
Can you share a short anecdote from your childhood that still affects you in some way?
When I was younger, my dad worked as a computer engineer for some major airline companies. One of the benefits he had was majorly discounted airplane tickets and we were able to travel all over the US. At some point, he was transferred to the South of France where we joined him and traveled throughout Europe. This will always stick with me as I think it's where my love for traveling and exploring came from.
If you could go back in time and tell your 20-year-old self one thing, what would it be?
I would have told myself to skip art school and study something useful like Latin American studies.
From the project "Eden". The caption is: Eden lays on the floor of her hotel room as she answers potential clients who have responded to her Backpage.com ad in King of Prussia, PA. Backpage.com was a popular classified advertising website used by sex workers.
What is the hardest project you have ever worked on?
The hardest project that I have worked on is the project, Eden. It is an ongoing project about a sex worker turned mother and yoga teacher that spans eight years. It is difficult not only logistically- she lives in Alabama and I live in Mexico- but also emotionally. We have become really close friends and I would hate for her to think that I'm only around because I want to continue photographing her. Thankfully over the years, our relationship has evolved where we make sure to communicate each of our wants and needs. It is also challenging because she has gone through some really rough periods ie "coming out" to her mother as a sex worker where I really had to push myself to take photos when she was distraught.
What makes a good photograph in your opinion?
A good photograph is an image that evokes a strong emotional response. Things like light, color, and composition are also important but secondary, in my opinion.
Do you ever feel uncomfortable with your human subjects when taking photographs? Can you provide an example?
Yes, I am uncomfortable when men I am photographing hit on me, when they think that I am only there with my camera to spend time with them. I was once assigned to photograph a family of wrestlers. The father began hitting on me even though his wife and kids were nearby and it made me extremely uncomfortable. After he grabbed my hand, I smiled politely and walked away. I wasn't sure how to navigate the situation since I needed to continue photographing him. In the end, I stood by his wife when he was near and made sure never to be alone with him.
Can you recall one thing you learned in your academic training that has stuck with you as memorable?
One of my professors told us that we don't need to travel far in order to create a meaningful photo project. Sometimes it's best to photograph what's in your backyard. Explore and get a different perspective on what you think you know.
Articles accompanying Alicia Vera's Photographs: