When Mexico City-based photographer Alicia Vera took her first photography class, she decided that her focus would be photojournalism. She found herself inspired by the images shown to her in class and decided to pursue this form of photography for a semester long project. Immediately, she chose to document exotic dancers. Why? Because she was drawn to the “rebellious and unconventional aspects” of their dances and their lives. However, after approaching numerous strip clubs throughout Miami, “it became obvious that gaining access was going to be the biggest challenge.” Therefore, she sadly shelved the project for the rest of her student career, hoping to one day be able to pick it back up.
After several more years of studying and working as a photographer, Alicia’s desire to create an exotic dancer essay increased. She found herself inspired by similar ideas, especially by the work of Susan Meiselas and her Carnival Stippers. Serendipitously, Alicia landed a job with a company that managed strip clubs throughout San Francisco. They hired her to photograph events and take portraits of their dancers for various websites. Alicia accepted the gig, thrilled to finally have the access and opportunity to interact regularly with strip club management and dancers.
Alicia got started on her long-awaited personal project while simultaneously working for her new employer,
While photographing for the company, I did my best to connect with the dancers on a personal level and gain their trust. I explained what I hoped to accomplish with my project and was able to photograph them without any reservations on their part.
However, once inside the dancers’ world, Alicia found it hard to catch the girls unguarded. Authentic moments were hard to come by,
While at work, the dancers are perpetually aware of their appearance. The high occupational turnover makes it exponentially more difficult to establish long-term relationships. The only way to overcome these difficulties is by constantly rebuilding relationships and sharing my work as it progresses. Seeing my images helps them to understand my goals and become more comfortable in front of the camera.
Over the course of three years, Alicia continued to photograph these dancers at work, and behind the scenes. She also photographed the girls outside of the club, even engaging socially with some she’d formed friendships with. Throughout her many experiences with these girls, Alicia began to change her perception of exotic dancers,
Although one of the goals of this project is to dispel stereotypes, I was initially guilty of prejudice. Now having spent time listening to these women, I have learned to not judge people by their cover. In doing so, it has enhanced my understanding of people.
Now that Alicia has started to share her collection of photos, she’s been getting great feedback from all over. Her “Stripped” project has been shared across the internet with “surprisingly positive” responses, “especially amongst the stripper community,”
They all seem to agree that despite the fact that I’ve never been a stripper, I have portrayed them accurately. They’ve told me that I captured the essence of their lifestyle. As far as editors and other photographers, the response has been positive and their criticism unanimous—they would like to see me continue this project with a greater focus on the domestic lives of the dancers.
Alicia plans to continue, this time focusing more on the private lives of the dancers. Of her current collection though, Alicia does have a favorite photograph.
My favorite image is the one where one of the dancers is crying and another is behind her, resting her head on her shoulder. Its quiet intensity makes it one of my favorite moments because they trusted me enough to allow me to photograph them in a moment of weakness.