No Man’s Land by the Belgium-born Manchester based photographer Mishka Henner is a collection of images appropriated from Google Street View that depict the periphery of Spanish and Italian cities. The camera’s high vantage point gives the viewer a towering perspective over the landscape. To achieve the best image clarity, the Google Street View car is usually shooting on clear days while the Mediterranean sun ads a painterly quality to the images. Also, like all Street View images, Google seemingly protected people’s identities by blurring their faces.
What at first appears to be a rather banal depiction of the encounter between the natural and urban environment, turns out to be, on closer inspection, a strikingly haunting and surreal representation of the sex trade. Trawling Google Street View while researching a potential photographic assignment, Henner discovered that Google’s omnipresent camera inevitably photographed what appear to be prostitutes waiting for their clientele. The landscape, no longer innocent or benign, is marked by a trade that thrives on inequalities, exploitation and abuse.
It is with considerable irony then, that a number of images depict accessories that presumably make the physical demands of the sex trade more bearable: one women stands under an umbrella to protect herself from the scorching sun, water bottles give an indication about the daytime temperatures, others have found a chair to sit on.
While the women in Henner’s No Man’s Land clearly stand out from the surrounding landscape, at the same time, some of them also appear to withdraw into it. Hidden pathways, tiny side roads and cave-like hedge formations further emphasize the ambiguity in the sex workers’ activities. While they ‘wish’ to be seen by those seeking for sexual pleasure, they also need to remain hidden from the public, the law and the police. The title of the series No Man’s Land thus evokes a number of interpretations. In a literal sense, No Man’s Land highlights the gendered dimension in this body of work – in Henner’s project no man is represented in the land. Yet the title also refers to the fact that the sex trade functions precisely because it is located in a space in which the land’s law is seemingly suspended.
While Henner’s work alludes to the harsh gender inequality of prostitution, it also refers to the politics of globalization. A photographic series by the Italian photographer Paolo Patrizi, recently highlighted in an article by my blogger colleague Pete Brooke, suggests that the sex trade not only thrives on the exploitation of women in general, more specifically, it thrives on the exploitation of the migrant worker, or, in the extreme, the victim of human trafficking. The women in No Man’s Land thus appear marginalized on a number of levels: marginalized by their locality on the edge of the city, marginalized by their ‘trade’ on the edge of legality, and finally, marginalized by their presumed status as undocumented, or maybe even, illegal workers.
Standing along the country roads leading to Bologna, Rome or Cremona, the women, some of them wearing little more than a bikini, seem wholly out of place. It is perhaps the extreme contrast between luscious greenery, bright clothing and exposed skin that makes Henner’s work so unsettling. This visual contrast functions as a metaphor for the extreme socio-economic contrast of modern day slavery apparently thriving in one of the world’s most advanced economies. This is of course Silvio Berlusconi’s Italy where bunga bunga parties, underage prostitution and the wholesale sexualization of women in the mainstream media is not only silently accepted, but rather, it is endorsed by the highest echelons of power.
It would be incorrect however to assume that these landscapes of exploitation don’t equally exist in other parts of Europe, or indeed, in other parts of the world. In that sense, No Man’s Land also alludes to a prototype borderland in which the sex trade flourishes because of economic, monetary or judicial differences. I am thinking of the middle-class German sex tourist driving over the border to Poland to exploit economic disparities, or the Chinese trucker who capitalizes from a cheap currency conversion in Vietnam, or, as the American ambassador to the Philippines recently highlighted, the American men who take advantage of seemingly lax laws in the Philippines. Yet Henner’s No Man’s Land is no distant country: for those visiting in search of sex, it is often only a few minutes drive away from home. In one photograph, the tire marks coming from a dirt road gives an indication on the frequency with which No Man’s Land is visited by man.
Mishka Henner’s work also raises questions about authorship: these are, after all, images that are freely available to anyone with an internet connection. To that extent, Henner himself inhabits a peripheral state as photographer as he is neither taking, constructing or even printing the photograph. Rather than photographing No Man’s Land himself, Henner’s work is more closely aligned with that of a curator who assembles and edits images to create a visual narrative.
For me, Henner’s work is about exploitation. In the first instance, it is the subjects in the photographs that are sexually and economically exploited. Yet, as physically removed the ‘photographer’ or the ‘artist’ might be from his subject, No Man’s Land also evokes questions about the subject being exploited by the image-maker. But who exactly is that? Is it Google’s invasive lens scanning the landscape in pretty much every advanced economy on the globe? Or is it Henner who has subsequently collected a wholly subjective and voyeuristic interpretation of the urban periphery? The viewer, too, is complicit in this exploitation: Google Street View and the various photographic projects that have since used it as source material emerge out of the demands of an economy thriving on images, thriving on seeing what would otherwise remain unseen, and thriving on the complex and unequal power relations that such form of seeing entails.
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