She Works Hard for the Money

Susan Meiselas Documents the Lives of Carnival Strippers

At Franklin Furnace's groundbreaking Carnival Knowledge event in January 1984, feminist artists got together with female porn stars for the first time. When Annie Sprinkle, Veronica Vera, Candida Royalle, and others spoke out at a performance called "Deep Inside Porn Stars," one theme was that women can feel empowered doing this kind of work.

And Lena describes exactly that in Carnival Strippers: "Being a stripper is as close to being in a man's world as you can be. It's a tough life. . . . She's got 40 guys in there. They could tear her limb from limb. She's got to control them, keep them back, and all she has is her wits and her talents. The men can't see it for what it is. The women look at it as being revolutionary—for the first time in their lives to say, 'I've got you eating out of the palm of my hand.' "

About a year and a half ago, Meiselas showed some of the Carnival Stripper photos at the Leica Gallery, along with new pictures she'd taken at an s/m club. "It was really striking—the difference in fantasy," she says. "The s/m work is theatrical. I didn't feel that about the strippers in any way. They were just throwing themselves into it. They were just surviving it, and what you feel about the women in the s/m is that they're in more control of their participation. It's a part of them that's doing this, but with the strippers it's all."

No doubt the reality of any sex worker's life lies somewhere between exploitation and empowerment. By the time Carnival Knowledge came around, for example, Lena was dead from an overdose.

And Meiselas had gone on to Nicaragua to photograph the Sandinista revolution. "Somebody asked me at the Whitney opening, 'How do you get from carnival strippers to Nicaragua?' And I summed it up in two words: 'self-determination.' Both mine and theirs. I think there is a crossover of some interesting aspects of that: people struggling to define themselves on their own terms."

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