Cammie Toloui has recently published her book ‘5 Dollars for 3 Minutes’ together with VOID. Through her publication, she exposes photographs from the 1990s, specifically those of Lusty Lady’s (a San Francisco strip club) customers. The photographer who is also a member of a punk band Yeastie Girlz, worked at the club while studying photojournalism at San Francisco State University. Turning her life into a photography project is something Toloui has been preoccupied with in the past decades but shares this period of her life in its full complexity only now.
In an interview with Discarded Magazine, she shares her thoughts on male vulnerability and the female gaze.
Could you please tell our readers about how did your project come about?
Back in the early 1990s, I was getting a degree in photojournalism at San Francisco State University. I was in my early 20s and living a very punk rock lifestyle and I needed money for living and to buy film and photo paper. My friends were either working as bicycle messengers (a notoriously grunge-punk career choice) or strippers at the Lusty Lady Theatre, a woman-owned peep show establishment in San Francisco’s seedy North Beach neighborhood.
So naturally, I got a job working as a stripper at the Lusty Lady 3 shifts per week and had been doing this for about a year when I first started taking a class taught by Ken Kobré, which focused on in-depth photo stories.
One of the early assignments for this class was to photograph our lives for a week. I really never thought any of my customers would allow me to photograph them, so it never occurred to me to ask. I knew I had to try because I realized even then that it would be an unusual point of view, so I brought my camera into work and asked a customer if I could take his picture while we were having our one-on-one session in the Private Pleasures booth. To my surprise, he said yes, and so did a lot of other people over the course of the next couple of years.
How do you reflect on the photography process of 5 Dollars for 3 Minutes? Was it hard to persuade the customers to get photographed?
When I first started asking my customers to collaborate with me in this way, I thought that the only way to convince someone to say yes was to offer them a discount. They paid five dollars for three minutes with me in the Private Pleasures booth (private, but we were separated by glass, so we could hear and see each other but there was no physical contact) and if they wanted extras like to watch me use a dildo or enact bespoke fetish fantasies, it cost extra. So, I decided to offer a free dildo show in exchange for the portrait, which saved them ten dollars.
Not everyone agreed to do this, so the photos you see don’t represent every person who came to see me, and some customers said yes but then covered their faces with hands or jackets. Some people really loved the attention and would express themselves in varied and wonderful ways.
This was all very surprising to me, as I had wrongly assumed that no one would ever agree to be photographed during such an intimate moment, but I’m glad I was wrong.
As time went on, I explored ways to make the images clearer, since the lighting was very dim and I was shooting through glass, so it took some experimenting to get the customer to be more prominent in the image than my own reflection.
What did you learn about male desire when creating this work?
Becoming a sex worker offered me a fascinating look behind the patriarchy’s curtain. A lot of the behaviors that men feel they have to display in public (being macho, suppressing sensitivity, and so on) could be shed when exploring and expressing one’s desires while in a booth with an anonymous sex worker. Not all men shed their misogyny or macho behaviors at the peep show, in fact, sometimes it brought those behaviors out more.
I learned that there are many variations to what gets men off. The diversity of kinks and fantasies out there was more plentiful than I could have imagined before. I also learned that a man’s cock and his ego are like conjoined twins sharing the same vital arteries.
As a feminist, what are your views on sex work and the entertainment industry?
It says a lot about our society and its attitudes towards women that sex work is still one of the few avenues for a woman to make a decent wage. Until there are equal opportunities and until wage disparity has been rectified, sex work will be an obvious choice for many women to gain some power in their lives.
Sex work can be fun, but it can also be tedious, boring, scary, monotonous… you know, like all work can be. The difference is that being looked at as the object of desire and not as a whole human being, when someone looks at you without seeing you, over and over again, it can start to feel shitty after not too long. It’s the patriarchy magnified, every work shift, every interaction. I want women to have more options than this, but I’m also glad that we do have sex work as a choice.
In the end, would you say that 5 Dollars for 3 Minutes is not only about your experiences working at Lusty Lady but also about male vulnerability?
Yes, for sure. To be honest I didn’t think of it in terms of male vulnerability while I was shooting the work. It wasn’t until I sat down to write the book (nearly thirty years later) that I started to see the work in that way. Since the book has come out, I am seeing how this idea of male vulnerability (and its lack of representation in media) has really struck a chord with people. It’s that thing that you don’t realize is missing until it is suddenly uncovered. So many men, especially, have contacted me to express sincere and deeply-felt thanks because they finally feel seen. As if no one has ever shown men being honest and sexually vulnerable before.
To me it has always mostly been about uncovering a hidden world – the other side of the sex industry – where money and male power meet – the convergence of capitalism and the patriarchy.
I see your work as a sort of mirror to male gaze, exposing it in an environment that we are so used to see only from one side. In your case, you show the space and the people from a female perspective. Do you then consider photography as a feminist practice?
Over my lifetime, photography, in general, has been a male-dominated field, so being a female photographer who has to fight for recognition and respect makes it a feminist practice by default. And yes, I do consider the Lusty Lady series a feminist body of work.
On one level it’s feminist because I’m shedding light on what has been mostly a secret male domain where women aren’t allowed unless they take the bold step to be a sex worker – the world’s oldest profession, so they say.
And there is another level, one which I have become more mindful of since the book was published. Showing men in the act of sexual intimacy – with hard cocks and egos exposed – may perhaps contribute to a shift in beliefs and attitudes about what is acceptable male behavior. Revealing men in this sensitive, vulnerable state goes against the confining and destructive heteronormative ideals that a man is expected to live up to. As a feminist, I love the thought that my photos could encourage men to feel they could be more sensitive and less macho, which would in turn help women greatly.
This body of work has been previously exhibited at large institutions but usually only photographs of women or heterosexual couples were presented. The pictures of men masturbating were omitted. In your book, these images predominate, why so?
With only a few exceptions, the Lusty Lady series has been shown in group shows where the curators have chosen what I call the “safe” images. These are the few in the series that have women in them, including images of me naked, of a woman squirting milk, of the hetero couple sitting serenely watching, or of the young couple where her bra is exposed. These are not a representative selection of what this work is about, and yet they are chosen over and over again by curators and editors who otherwise love the Lusty Lady series. Unfortunately, they are too scared or are maybe under pressure by people in positions of power who are scared of the work, so they pick images that show what we are all used to – naked women or well-behaved hetero couples.
A few years ago, after a big group show, I decided: Enough! I’m not going to say yes to these sorts of edits anymore because it’s not what this work is about. And, by allowing this sort of de facto censorship of my work, I become a participant in the same old sexist mindset and shame-mongering that I otherwise rail so hard against.
Why did you decide to publish this body of work in the form of a photobook now?
I’ve tried at various times over the past 30 years to find a willing publisher. I understand that it’s not for everyone, but I knew there would be someone out there willing to take a chance on this powerful series of photos. While living in England I was approached by William Davie, who loved the work and made it his mission to make sure the Lusty Lady series was seen and published. He inspired me to write my story and approach publishers and after a few years, we found Void, a fantastic photobook publisher in Greece.
I think perhaps people are more open to new ways of thinking about sexuality now than they were in the 1990s when I shot this work. The time was right, and things have come together to make this a successful book.