Sunday, November 16, 2003

Jesse Hamlin
Chronicle Staff Writer

The innocent eye

S.F. photographer explores the hidden world of Asian sex workers: victims or heroines?

Reagan Louie gazed at his photograph of Ice, a Macau prostitute lying on a round bed with baby blue satin sheets, cupping her surgically enhanced breasts.

At first glance, it might suggest a Playboy shot. But look closer, said Louie, whose big color photographs of Asian sex workers have been stirring things up at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

"Her toe is touching the edge of the frame," Louie said. "That's a metaphor for the edge I'm trying to walk — to make some of the pictures almost seem like pornography or cheesecake, and yet they're not. I'm playing with that genre. Walking the edge between fantasy and reality. If you look closer, the seams of the bed are fraying."

Western fantasies and stereotypes of Asian women were on Louie's mind when he began shaping the images in "The Photographs of Reagan Louie: Sex Work in Asia," on display at San Francisco Museum of Modern Art through Dec. 7. The disquieting exhibition doesn't take sides on the charged, contentious subject of prostitution — but inevitably churns up the debate. That these dispassionate pictures — taken at Tibetan brothels, Thai sex clubs, Vietnamese karaoke bars and Japanese "image" clubs — don't judge the sex trade, or portray the women as victims, disturbs viewers with fixed assumptions and opinions about the world's oldest profession.

Hundreds of people have scribbled their thoughts in the "comment books" the museum sometimes puts out during shows that elicit strong responses.

"Perpetuates the exploitation of women," wrote one.

"A brilliant and simple insight into the world of sex workers in Asia," wrote another.

"I couldn't look too much, yet I couldn't look away," wrote someone else, who found the images beautiful and disturbing.

Louie thinks people who criticize him for being "neutral" misunderstand the artist's role. He's not a journalist, he said, nor even a documentary photographer with a social agenda (unlike Lewis Hine at the turn of the last century, who photographed child labor, or Brazilian photojournalist Sebastiao Salgado, who chronicles the working poor).

"The job of the artist is to provoke a lot of questions," said Louie, 52, a San Francisco photographer who spent six years, on and off, photographing the workaday world of the sex trade currently in Korea, Japan, China and Southeast Asia. "I want to show that this world is far more varied and complicated than any assumptions we might have. … I try and describe the living, breathing specificity of these women, the complexity of their lives.

"Let's be clear: They're there by necessity," Louie added. "Their stories are often very similar — family hardship, industries closing down in the villages, no other work prospects. But even though some of the stories and circumstances are shared, each is different and unique. Each photograph is a form of collaboration, with that specific individual, in those specific circumstances."

"There are a lot of women — and maybe those are the ones I was particularly interested in — for whom this is a way of life that's legitimate. Economic necessity plays an enormous role. Having said this, there are a lot of very savvy women who are there by choice."

A fourth-generation Chinese American whose work has often explored cross-cultural identity, Louie says he had bought into the stereotypes of exotic Asian women: the mysterious dragon lady, tragic Madame Butterfly, the enticing hooker personified in the 1960 film "The World of Suzie Wong."

He found those stereotypes upended when some businessmen took him to a Hong Kong karaoke hostess club in 1997 (he was covering the British handover of Hong Kong to China for the New York Times Magazine).

He assumed the women would "all be Suzie Wongs in those cheong sam gowns slit to their waists," he said. Instead, he found "everyday, normal women, like your sibling."

Role playing and seduction were part of the game, but the atmosphere had the relaxed vibe of a party. Photographically, Louie wanted to crack open the old stereotypes and delve into the dynamic between Asian men and women, which he saw played out in a kind of "heightened" fashion in the theatrical space of the karaoke club. He was intrigued by the photographs he took that night, and decided to focus on the sex industry.

Guides brought him to many of the bars, clubs and brothels where he found his subjects. In some countries, prostitution is legal; in others, like China, it's illegal and controlled by the Army and police. He generally paid the women for their time and let them present themselves to the camera as they wished. Some simply advertise their wares, striking patently erotic poses. Others sit naturally, smiling or looking reflective. Two Lhasa prostitutes stand fully clothed outside a brothel in front of some lacy veils, giggling like sisters; a few minutes earlier, they'd told Louie how Tibetan men sometimes get drunk and rough them up. Many of the women look blank, bored, emotionally withdrawn.

"There's a tension between the formal beauty and the content," said Louie, who describes formal elements of his pictures in relation to the work of Caravaggio, the Surrealists and Edward Hopper. Some viewers have been troubled by how young some of these women look. Among them was Lynn Atkinson, an inspector with the San Francisco Police Department who investigates crimes against prostitutes.

"It's not Turk and Ellis we're dealing with here," she said, referring to the Tenderloin corner where prostitutes famously ply their trade. "But some looked underage to me, and that bothered me."

Louie asked all his subjects if they were at least 18.

"We tend to focus in the West on the victimized, the children," said Louie, a gentle guy with a lean, intelligent face, wearing black jeans and a red-striped shirt as he walked a visitor through the exhibition recently.

"I'm very aware of the issue of exploitation and firmly against it. I wasn't interested in (photographing) the ones that were clearly victimized. They're there, I saw them, I turned away. I was interesting in the survivors, not victims — women with a sense of agency, a certain degree of power, a sense of self."

There's Ying, a young Bangkok prostitute pictured in a bathtub, kneeling between the legs of some faceless john, staring proudly at the camera. The picture hangs in the same gallery as a portrait of Mem, another Bangkok hooker.

She sits nude on the bed, pale and placid, her body scarred by childbirth. She wears an expression of tired resignation.

"I had plenty of conflicts about what I was doing," Louie said. "I don't stand outside the work. The pictures are as much about my struggle as theirs. I experienced the full range of emotions. Sometimes I was titillated — they're good at their jobs — sometimes I was shocked, repelled. I felt like a voyeur at times. And that's part of the work. I wanted to say (something) about the conflicts of the experience of making that picture, and also to force the viewers, as they look at that picture, to think about their looking."

Louie's portrayal of Asian sex work has been praised by American activist sex workers and writers like Tracy Quan, who wrote the introduction to the recent book of these photos, and San Francisco's Carol Leigh, spokeswoman for the prostitute's rights group Coyote (Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics). A mostly retired hooker, Leigh is a writer and performer who goes by the stage name Scarlot Harlot (her new book of essays, "Unrepentant Whore," is being published this month by Last Gasp).

"I was very moved by the show. The photographs showed these women as individuals, as people. I liked that there was no explanation and no condemnation," said Leigh, who in the mid-'90s served on the Board of Supervisors commission on prostitution (which recommended decriminalization) and is working with the group SWOP (Sex Workers Outreach Project) to get an initiative on the California ballot to legalize prostitution.

"I wondered how these women came to be prostitutes, what they would prefer to do, what their life goals were."

You can't generalize about prostitution because there are so many different experiences of it, Leigh said.

"Prostitution can be forced and degrading, but it's not inherently degrading, unless you think sex is inherently degrading. One can be (made) a sexual slave, or one can choose prostitution because one is curious or it's the best of other work options. Basically, most work, to some extent is forced."

Norma Hotaling doesn't buy that rap. A former street prostitute, she founded and directs the Sage Project, the San Francisco organization run by former prostitutes that provides drug treatment, shelter, job training and other services for sex workers, as well as running the city's First Offender program for johns busted for soliciting sex.

"To people who say, 'a secretary is trapped,' let's ask the secretary if she'd rather have sex with four or five people a night she doesn't know or like — or type," Hotaling said.

Groups like Coyote, she continued, "say prostitution is just a job some women choose. They never come to the table and talk about the connection between the trafficking of women throughout the world and prostitution; they never want to talk about the connection between adult prostitution and the huge increase in child prostitution."

Hotaling opposes the decriminalization of prostitution because "I do not believe we should give men the right to buy women and girls. Prostitution is a totally misogynist, exploitative and violent system."

She recently returned from Korea and India, where she was working on a film about women in the sex trade. Most of the women she spoke to in Korea "were in debt bondage and forced into prostitution. They were trapped. 'If not you, someone else.' The economic and political system supports that in Korea and India."

Hotaling hasn't seen Louie's show, but said some of her Sage colleagues were ambivalent about it.

"They didn't know if it was promoting the sex industry or showing it's hurting women, that it's really exploitative," Hotaling said.


"Morally," Louie replied, "life is so complicated, how can you ever judge why someone does something?"

Reagan Louie will speak about his work at an SFMOMA panel discussion — "Reagan Louie, Diane Arbus and the Elusive Nature of Photographic Meaning" — at 2 p.m. Saturday, along with writer and sex worker Tracy Quan, photographer Susan Meiselas, SFMOMA photography curator Sandra Phillips and art historian Sally Stein. Tickets $8-12. 618-3262.

— E-mail Jesse Hamlin at

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Created: November 18, 2003
Last modified: January 14, 2004
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