How Does It Feel To Have A Partner Who Does Sex Work?

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Chris Buck, a photographer and director based in New York and California, has always been drawn to the tension between strength and vulnerability. In his latest series — the book, Gentlemen’s Club — Buck explores that dichotomy within the world of strip clubs. Over six years, he interviewed 40 people — strippers and their partners.

Buck’s earliest questions were basic, revolving around some variation of: Are you sure you’re cool with your partner stripping? As he spoke to more couples, though, his project began to take shape, becoming more about, as he puts it, “these sort of complicated relationships and how we navigate a social world that is not linear.”

The interviews in Gentlemen’s Club aren’t meant to change readers’ minds as much as open them, Buck says. “I think there’s a sizeable minority of people who live in ways that would be considered, in one way or another, very unconventional. And yet these are regular people who are just trying to get by like everyone else. These people’s lives are not ordinary, but they’re much more typical than you might guess,” he says. “I’m drawn to spaces that never really give a clear answer.”

Below, Buck explains how he came up with the idea for Gentlemen’s Club, where he found his subjects, and what his larger goal is for a project like this.

Refinery29: Tell us how you first came up with the idea for this project.

Chris Buck: “My background is doing editorial photography and advertising. I’m always producing lists of ideas, but at some point I hit a wall, and I realised I had been passing my ideas through multiple filters: what interests me and what might seem original and visual — but also what was going to be suitable for promotional material, [which are] images from each session that I could mail out to potential clients to garner interest in my work. Since advertising clients often behave conservatively, because they don’t want to alienate potential customers, I realised this filter was limiting so much of my work.

“Once I kind of opened up that filter, one idea that came through my consciousness was to do something related to strip clubs. That was something that I’ve been fascinated by. I began to think about what I could do that would align with what I do as a photographer, and that’s when I hit upon the partners, and doing a portrait series around them.”

When I first received the book, I was surprised to see how extensive the interviews were, knowing that you’re a photographer. Did you consciously choose to give as much weight to the written portion of the book as you did to the photographs?

“Initially, I planned to include a single image of the partner or couples, along with a jump-out quote from each person. But during my first meetup with this guy, Pano, he talked for like 45 minutes straight. When I walked out of there, I was like, ‘Wow.’ It was intense, but also great. I was really excited; you know when you’re getting gold. After three or four meetups, I also realised that it was hard to find people, and I wanted this book to have some heft. So I combined the idea of showing multiple images of each couple, as well as showing more extensive interviews.”

Considering it was difficult to find people who were willing to participate, there’s still such a wide spectrum of people represented among your subjects. Were you consciously trying to find a variety of different stories and experiences?

“I think that maybe about half the story is [in the book]. Because the business of being a stripper is such a stigmatised occupation, most people I approached [to participate] said, ‘Sounds really cool. Can’t wait to see it — but no, thank you.’ It’s a very self-selecting group [that will participate].

“One of the best pictures in the book is on page 162.” (Seen below.) “Lana was one of the most well-spoken people about why she was in the business and why it was something she wanted to do, and yet in this photo she’s hiding behind her partner. She said, ‘I’ll participate in the photos, but I don’t want to be seen.’ So we did this picture where she’s hiding, but you can see her in the mirror. It became one of my favourite pictures in the books, because it captures this conflict.

Did you learn anything that surprised you, over the course of creating this project?

“You’ll see, the interviews in general get longer as you get toward the second half of the book. Because I got better at interviewing and I also kind of learned about that world more. Early on it was very much, ‘So are you really comfortable with them doing this job?’ But I learned things from the previous interviews and applied them, and I could come at it more sideways or less blunt. So my questions were more insightful and more nuanced.

“There was one guy in a polyamorous relationship. But [his partner] was having an ongoing relationship with a customer, which was making him uncomfortable because she called it work and he called it polyamory and they couldn’t agree. He said, ‘I consider that move as being polyamorous, she distinguishes that as work. To her it is a difference between being in an open relationship and working. I still have my viewpoint: that it is having multiple relationships at once, regardless of work or not.’ We were parsing it out as he was talking about it, and he was kind of trying to explain to me where that line was.”

What would you hope people will take away from this book?

“You know, even if they, in theory, are okay with people doing this kind of work, you talk to people and there’s still a visceral looking down their nose — that they must not be very sophisticated, or they must have made bad choices that put them there. And that’s true sometimes, but then sometimes that’s not true. One of the conversation pieces that kept coming up was whether this was an advocacy project, and I would always argue that it’s not. My book was more about asking questions and getting answers than advocacy. And yet I feel [there’s value to] exhibiting a wide range of people with real nuance. Even if you might view their work roughly the same way after reading my book, at least you have a more complex view of them.”

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