Sex, Lives & Stereotypes

May 2, 2011


They walk the margins of life and the law. St Kilda’s street workers are the most visible, and at times vulnerable, element of the sex trade. They are talked of, rather than talked to, with grainy images of women on street corners held up as cautionary tales of lives and worlds gone wrong. A year ago, photographer Gemma-Rose Turnbull joined St Kilda Gatehouse, a support centre for St Kilda’s drug users and prostitutes, as an artist in residence. She began photographing the street workers, then gave them cameras to photograph themselves. The images are often blurry, but they carry raw truths. Pictures of street corners, clients, drugs and the detritus of hard lives. They, and their accompanying words, have common themes, of abuse at a young age, violence, of using and being used. There is sorrow and cynicism, alongside strength and humour.


I RAN away from home and started working on the street at 13. I had a very good upbringing, was not sexually abused, grew up in Middle Brighton, went to a ladies’ college.

Parents separated, didn’t understand it, and was hurting. Just knew that when I went away, that it hurt my parents. And also gave, in my child mind, that possibility of them getting back together.

It opened up a brand new world. I went from one week playing with dolls, to going out earning $2000 to $3000 in one night. Men to me was money. No boyfriends, no nothing. I didn’t go through that normal, you know, teenager, getting a crush on a guy and dating and going to the movies and that. Why do that? They were just my bread and butter.

I started using heroin when I was about 15. Had a raging habit. Most of my teen years I don’t remember because I was taking big, big handfuls of pills.

I fell pregnant at 20; I saw [someone’s] baby hanging out and that horrified me. I promised [myself] that if I ever fell pregnant, I’d get off all the drugs.

In the meantime, the police had rung my parents and said that I’d be dead within 12 months. A week later, I found out I was pregnant and by the time I was six months pregnant, I was off all drugs. I still spin out how I struggled to achieve that, and never touched heroin since.

Now I’ve retired, sort of. If regular clients come along I’ll see them. I’m still down around the street a lot. I do whatever I can.

Luna Park, St Kilda at night

The young girls don’t realise what they’re getting into, and every single under-age worker down here comes from residential care. I mean, I think that’s pretty disgusting; that the welfare, the government that is supposed to be looking after these children … they’ve taken them away from their home because there’s a concern for their wellbeing, yet they shove them into residential care and next thing you know they’re out on the street.

They should be held accountable, it’s not a life for a child. It’s too easy to get addicted to the money. And they don’t see the dangers. They don’t see the sleazebags that will use and abuse them.

The people [in St Kilda] make you feel uncomfortable. I swear most of them have not learnt a single bit of manners; staring, comments, rude comments. I especially love the ladies that make comments ‘cos I’ll strut up to them and say, ”Thank you, ladies. Ladies like you keep ladies like me in business.” It goes way over their heads.

I can understand residents being annoyed by living with the byproducts of sex work and drug use, but I guess the alternative is thieving.

The fact is that St Kilda, the prostitutes were there, right from the word go. St Kilda is known as a red-light district all over the world.

About the Project

Red Light Dark Room: Sex, Lives & Stereotypes

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