In a brightly lit gallery on the corner of West and Charles Streets in New York City, a small yet extremely powerful photo exhibit on beauty, sexuality, and sex trafficking was on display. In collaboration with the Somaly Mam Foundation, photographer Michael Angelo created a masterpiece: The Lipstick Portraits. Portraits of women and men, drag queens and transvestites, lined the gallery’s tall white-washed walls. Each photo unique, each with its own story. But they all have one thing in common: their subjects arrayed in bright red lipstick, a universal symbol of feminine beauty, but a growing symbol of the oppression faced by victims of sex trafficking around the world.
The first photograph on the wall was a striking image of Susan Sarandon. In her interview — from a packet available to all visitors — Sarandon describes freedom in these words: “When you exercise those choices,” she says, referring to the choice to ask questions and be seen how you want to be seen, “you exercise tremendous freedom.” These are freedoms that we possess, but children forced into prostitution do not. As Lady Bunny, a glamorous drag queen and the subject of one of Michael Angelo’s engrossing photos, so succinctly put it: “I choose to apply lipstick and the underage girls forced into prostitution don’t.” We are free to wear makeup, dress how we please, and to speak our minds. In the context of this exhibit, we are free to look beautiful.
And that begs the question of what exactly is “beauty”? The notion of “beauty” has a unique meaning for each one of us, and we express it in different ways. Most importantly, we have the freedom to decide what makes us beautiful, and to want to be beautiful, and thus the freedom to be desired. But this exhibit shows us that being desired is not always good. For young sex workers, it’s horrific; in their world, desirability means exploitation, abuse, and enslavement.
This exhibit also explores representations of sexuality. One particularly alluring photograph of Noot Seear, model, actress, and the president of Rose Charities, shows viewers this sexual attraction of makeup. Her face half hidden behind her disheveled dark blond hair, viewers are immediately curious about her. The freedom of sexuality gives us power, but forced and artificial sexuality makes thousands of children powerless. They are utterly vulnerable, and for them, sexuality and beauty is a frightening, dark and miserable dungeon, that strips young girls of innocence and childhood.
I’m not sure what I expected to see before walking into the gallery, but I certainly didn’t expect to feel overwhelmed with sorrow and sadness thinking of the child prostitutes forever trapped behind the walls and curtains of their dungeons. Perhaps it was the tranquility and deafening silence of the gallery juxtaposed with the loud message screaming out from each photograph. Whatever it was, it worked. The Lipstick Portraits are a glaring reminder of our freedom in opposition to the heartbreaking reality of the thousands of child prostitutes forced into an unchosen fate.
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Photo credit: weglet