I got into contact with the “girls” (sex workers) with help from Nizhny Novgorod social activist Andrei Amirov. I was able to spend between five and fifteen minutes at each “office” (a rented flat where sexual services are provided), during breaks between clients. I had to draw the series very quickly on the spot without making corrections. We made the rounds of over a dozen “offices.” It is nearly impossible for outsiders (especially women who do not work as girls) to get into an office. For me it was a valuable experience: I was able to do portraits, record the women’s own words, and ask them questions. There is a striking difference between the images of prostitutes circulated by the media and the girls I saw. The girls condemned the violent behavior of men generally (not just that of their clients), strongly criticized the authorities (officials and the police) and tried to maintain their personal boundaries even while working this job (which seems wildly unrealistic to me). I recalled times when I had been subjected to emotional and physical violence by men but had gone on claiming this was what “normal” life was like. The rented flats where sexual services are provided are called “offices” (kontory). When they are not busy, the “girls” (devochki), the madam (mamochka) and the “dispatcher” (dispetcher) hang out in the kitchen behind a closed door or curtain, while customers are served in the “chambers” (apartamenty). I caught a glimpse of these rooms while I was making my way to the kitchen in different offices. They all look alike: a sagging fold-out couch or ottoman, a rug on the floor, a TV in the corner. Although the girls keep them clean, the rooms still look off-putting: you can tell no one lives in them. In only one of the offices I visited had the chambers been decorated. The walls were hung with long pale green curtains, which apparently were meant to remind one of a boudoir.
This is the introduction to “The ‘Girls’ of Nizhny Novgorod,” a graphic reportage by artist Victoria Lomasko now published in English translation in the February 2014 issue of Words without Borders. Read the rest of the story here.