Sept. 5, 2019

Let us stop living #secretlives: the visual stories of sex work

Social Work Positive Disruption event Sept. 26 showcases sex workers' storytelling about their life experiences, highlighting issues and recommended solutions
Red umbrella
The red umbrella is a symbol of sex workers in Newfoundland and Labrador. Courtesy research participants

A bench, a graduation cap, a calendar, a pony, a pair of shoes, and a hiking trail. At first glance, these photographs might not seem connected. But the images, taken by sex workers, tell stories about their lives.

The images are part of an exhibition and presentation called Let Us Stop Living Secret Lives: The Visual Stories of Sex Work, that will be shown in Calgary, Thursday, Sept. 26, 6:30-8:30 p.m. at Gibson Fine Art Gallery (628 11th Ave. S.W.). Check-in is at 6 p.m. Register for the event. 

Using photography and art, the compelling visual stories shared in this exhibit include early beginnings, what the work offers, the challenges and risks sex workers face, and what should be done to provide security, safety and guaranteed basic human rights.

The exhibit comes from a two-year SSHRC-funded study led by Dr. Kathy Sitter, PhD, an associate professor in the Faculty of Social Work, that explores the life experiences of sex workers living in cities, rural areas, and small towns in the province of Newfoundland and Labrador. Using participant photography, 15 participants from Newfoundland and Labrador shared their experiences that broadly focused on five areas: The Industry, Health Care, Law, Supports, and Basic Needs.

The exhibition comes to Calgary following two exhibits in St. John’s and Corner Brook.  In the fall, the exhibit will move online and will launch on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram where people can use the hashtag #SecretLives to follow the exhibit and share their comments. 

Sitter says visual methods provide a unique way for people to present their lived reality with layered meanings. 

“We all live storied lives,” says Dr. Sitter. “And visual media like photography and art are powerful ways to engage audiences in the storytelling process.” Sitter hopes the exhibit will raise awareness and create an understanding of the life experiences of sex workers, with a goal of changing policy to create better working conditions and help sex workers obtain the health and other supports they need.

“You can think about sex work as a continuum that is often driven by power, autonomy and agency,” says Sitter. “On that continuum there are many diverse experiences, and this exhibit shares these stories from across the continuum.”

To keep informed with the study, Stop Living Secret Lives: The Visual Stories of Sex Work, please follow #SecretLives on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram

Please note this event will be presented in gallery-style format and is primarily a standing event. Light appetizers and refreshments will be served.