Two naked bodies in a hotel room on a casual day, one giving pleasure that the other has paid for. A collection of images captures the transitory ecstasy in bed and the lasting decision to cope with the increasing costs of living. Nothing extraordinary, just a business day in Ellie English’s life as a photographer and a full-service sex worker.
Born and raised in South East London, Ellie documents family dynamics, sadomasochism, the everyday, and her life as a sex worker through diaristic photography. Her practice engages with intimacy, sexuality, and relationships using Fujifilm Instax. Recently, she self-published her photo book does monday work? which gives a glimpse of her five-year stint as a full-service sex worker. The book brings together anonymous portraits of her clients along with photographs of the hotel rooms in which they met. The comfort in giving, appreciating, and making pleasure finds its definition in the images Ellie published. The photographer creates a space for contemplation on of sex work and photography through ghostly corridors, cheap lamps and chairs, musky carpets, hotel shampoos and soaps, feather-filled comforters, and soft eroticism.
For Re-Edition, Ellie says her introduction to sex work happened through Seeking Arrangement (now rebranded as Seeking), an American dating website connecting potential sugar daddies with their sugar babies. The photographer resorted to the website out of financial necessity, a quick fix to help her find a place to live. While the mainstream social media has glamorized the income and life of a sugar baby - others even joking they would rather live as a sugar baby than finish their degrees – Ellie reveals that the majority of interactions she had through the dating site turned out to be incredibly problematic and exploitative. “The site attracts a lot of men wanting an escort experience without having to pay escort rates and takes advantage of naive young women experiencing financial difficulties. I did however make some positive connections in these earlier days, one dynamic in particular is still present in my life and has been beneficial to me in numerous ways over a period of several years,” she tells Re-Edition.
It took Ellie a while to accept that she has been doing a form of sex work. The moment she freed herself from any shame surrounding her perception of prostitution and finally accepted that her time and services could be more profitable by charging hourly as an escort, she moved away from Seeking Arrangements and went on her own. As a full-service sex worker, she provides in-person full sex services as opposed to being a sex worker who often only works by creating online content, or a dominatrix who may not engage in any kind of penetrative sex. “I make my living through various different forms of sex work, but the book’s focus is solely on the in-person meet-ups with the men who have paid money in exchange for my physical company and sexual services. What took place during our time together is never shown. There is an absence of explicit details,” she says.
The air of anonymity drifts as Ellie shot fragments of her pre-, during, and post-sex work, a reinstatement that all photographs are pure documentation and a depiction of her in-between moments with the clients. “Clothes being put back on or being taken off, resting or showering once needs have been met. No instructions were given. If anything I may have asked them to stay as they are while I get my camera,” Ellie says who would start by asking if the clients were okay with her taking their photographs, explaining that she was an artist and giving her word that their identity would always remain anonymous. She would only use images that the clients would be comfortable with using, and if they were to decide they did not want Ellie owning photographs of them that she had taken, the photographer would hand the images over to them to keep as meet-up souvenirs to treasure.
Ellie has transformed sex work into a work of art, defying the sometimes derogatory terms and thoughts imposed on people who dabble in the industry. For the photographer, sex work can be a life-saver for many who have entangled themselves in an underpaid system of overworking and high costs of living. She believes that not everyone has the emotional or physical capability to work ten hours a day and six days a week while still struggling to pay the rent and expenses. The reasons for becoming a sex worker are broad, subjective, and often quite complex, but it depends on the person’s needs to make a living. “Essentially, sex work is work. Lots of sex workers also have no alternative, they may not have legal immigration status, or they may have disabilities, mental or physical, which prohibits them from being able to maintain more socially acceptable means of work,” says Ellie.
The photographer echoes how sex workers have bills to pay and mouths to feed regardless of the depth of emotions that can occur during the transactional exchange of money for sex. “The policing of women’s bodies and stigma surrounding the subject help nobody. It definitely does nothing to aid sex workers in need of support and those requiring access to health care or housing,” she adds. She calls for decriminalization of sex work as any legislation that seeks to control, track, and trace them or their clients creates more dangerous and damaging situations, often putting sex workers at more risk than they already are. “Sex workers need labor rights and fair access to resources. They do not need laws making their lives more challenging based on others’ moralistic views over what we are permitted to do with our own bodies,” says Ellie.
Ellie decided to self-publish her photo book albeit it being a costly and complex journey. Nobody knows her work more than she does, and Ellie feels she would not have been ready to hand over the curation control to someone else. The very few occasions in recent years where she has allowed anyone else to edit her images did not feel right to her. Through self-publishing, she had total control over every detail she wanted to put in. “Of course, I still reach out for others’ opinions, but essentially, I trust my judgment and gut instinct above anything or anyone else. The juxtaposition of photographs is an important element of my practice. It is a conceptual process of acknowledging the magic of photography through playing with photographs, bringing them together to communicate ideas and provoke contemplation,” she says.
Coming up with the title for the book, Ellie rifled through her messages with her clients. She needed a name for the project before she could submit it as part of her Master’s degree in Fine Art at the University of East London. She spent an afternoon in a pub with her friend, bouncing ideas off of one another, until she settled on a common question she fires off at her clients. “It is mundane like many of the photographs in the book. Monday is usually the dullest day of the week, possibly a surprising time to be seeing a sex worker. It is casual and unassuming, but still a formal text message. Like the photographs themselves, the title does not define but only asks questions,” says Ellie.
Does monday work? cycles through the surface of working in the sex industry, cloaked with anonymity and the mundane while speaking volumes of the partial acceptance by the traditional society over sex work. Through her documentary-like eye, Ellie English curates an anthology of making meets ends and mixing business with pleasure.