Juliana Beasley: The Story of a Photographer Who Became a Lapdancer
American photographer. Majored in Photography at the NYU Tisch School of the Art. Published her work in The New York Times, The Courier International, The British Journal of Photography. Beasley’s photographs are part of permanent exhibitions at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London and the Museum of Photography in Charleroi, Belgium.
— While I was at the Tisch School of the Arts studying photography in the early 90s, I worked on the side as a waitress and also as a dancer in gay nightclubs around the city. And yes, I also worked some photo-related freelance jobs like being a printer for Annie Leibovitz, but I still barely made enough money to get by in NYC.
Once I graduated from college, I really wanted to travel around Europe and live in Italy to work on building a documentary portfolio. But I found that my jobs were not enough to help me save that kind of money. During that time, I met a woman named Nora who performed in trendy night clubs where ‘club kids’ wearing spectacular outfits and makeup stood outside behind ropes, waiting for their chance for the doorman to select them to enter. I noticed that Nora was never short on cash. One night I asked her how and where she was making all this money. She was a stripper!
One night, I went to the strip club where she danced to see her perform. I was mesmerized by all these beautiful topless women who were dancing and undulating their bodies under flashing lights. I reinvented myself. I was about 20 lbs over the weight of a typical slender dancer and I had a head full of pink dreadlocks that made me unfit to be stripper material. In a couple of months, very determined and ready to begin a career that would allow me to travel the world, I lost the weight and bought two wigs. I had my first audition in a topless strip club down in the financial district near Wall St. I got the job. I never thought that it would last more than 8 months or less and instead, I spent 10 years working as a career stripper.
I will be honest. At that time in my life, making money to save for my future came before photography. I started dancing in 1992 and finished more or less in 2001. I had a serious goal: I wanted to save $100,000 before I retired and I had big investment dreams and goals. My photography career was on hold until I saved that money and I eventually did succeed.
My Best Night is a self-portrait of myself on probably the night I had made the most money. My bruised, brown, and calloused knees tell the true signs of a night of working hard and often spent on my knees on a dirty carpet in a lap dance room. This was a typical moment for me at the end of a long night working. I often sat in the back of the dressing room and before preparing to leave the club, I would sit down on the floor with my legs splayed and I would count the $20 dollar bills into piles of hundreds and then lay them out in front of me. I remember the feeling of elation and excitement and the hunger to make more money on the following night.
Many of the images that are in my book, Lapdancer, were taken when I had already stopped dancing. And many images were taken in clubs where I had never worked or knew anyone who worked there. But in the beginning, I would bring in a small Contax T2 (later, I would also bring in a larger SLR camera) in order to photograph the dancers and customers during free moments away from the stage or giving private lap dances.
I was surprised at first that so many customers allowed me to photograph them and signed model releases. But after years of dancing for men and listening to them in private conversations, I understood that they often felt overlooked and invisible in their own lives. And so, maybe when I focused the camera on them, for a moment they felt recognized and seen. For a fleeting moment, the voyeur became the object of desire.
I did not want to make another stripper photo book that told the story of desperate women. And many of the dancers I knew and worked with also would not fit into that assumption. The story I wanted to tell was about women who were lap dancers or strippers and wanted to save enough money to realize their future dreams and retire early in life. They were hard workers and owned condos in Florida and took good care of their children. They often worked 5-6 days a week or even more, because they wanted to invest their money in the stock market. They were living their own version of the American Dream.
Most people do not want to believe that a woman would make a conscious and sober decision to expose her body to a room full of men to make a good living. Despite all the disreputable opinions and attitudes that pervade our culture about women who choose to work in the lap dance subculture, or the sex industry in general, most of us were all using the spotlight to get ahead.
I took Ingrid and Customer in a New Jersey club where I worked for many years while living in Manhattan. My favorite part of this image is the ‘deer caught in the headlights’ expression that the man has on his face. He seems frightened and almost in shock that the dancer is straddling him on the chair. Customers cannot touch a dancer’s body in most clubs and so, he has lost his control, and her body becomes a symbol of power.
I had always told myself that I would get out of the business by the time I hit thirty, but that did not happen. I really could not figure out what my next move in life would be. Many dancers find it very challenging to leave the industry. They, like myself, stay longer than they had planned. I was so used to making at least $800 dollars, minimum, on most Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights that the thought of looking for work with a resume that had nothing to offer except about 10 years of working as a stripper was terrifying. Stripping, in the end, is a dead end job as you get older. It’s like being an aging actress in Hollywood. Women become invisible as they get older and that’s the sad truth of our culture. It’s just not the sex industry.
The irony is that I quit for the very same reason I had told many of my stripper friends not to quit the business. My boyfriend at the time wanted a more committed relationship and wanted me to stop dancing because it made him feel jealous. So I chose the relationship. And within a couple of weeks, he dumped me. I felt like I had not just lost a very lucrative job, but I had lost a family of other dancers who made me laugh and made me feel at home. And that’s how it ended.