The “Art” of Exploiting Cambodian Sex Workers

Warning: Please be aware that clicking on many of the links in this post will lead to websites containing images that are NSFW and may be offensive and/or triggering.

I consider myself fairly liberal when it comes to some of the most controversial 21st-century debates about sex. I’m not anti-pornography or sex work, as long as they are properly regulated, include health care for workers and require explicit consent of all participants. I also think that erotically charged art can be very compelling, provided it goes beyond prurient sensationalism. So it’s pretty impressive, though not in a good way, that French artist Antoine D’Agata’s photographs of himself having sex with Cambodian sex workers piss me off so much.

D’Agata, whom Flaunt magazine calls a “provocative social documentarian,” revels in the controversial nature of his art practice. He has expressed hope that the photos–which depict him engaged in a variety of sex acts with young women in brothels–might somehow bring light to the plight of sex workers in Cambodia. He claims he’s trying to realistically portray the underbelly of society and human desire, saying:

I photograph and I live with individuals that do not have a similar power of choice. […] My relations with the prostitutes of Cambodia are based on a common addiction to methamphetamine. […] Paradoxically, the prostitutes’ compulsive pleasure, their narcotic lucidity, creates survival in a parallel economy, new zones of shadow, which undermines the foundations of the system–they prefer vice to poverty.

In fact, D’Agata so muddles the issue of choice (and pleasure!) here that it’s almost laughable. The idea that these women are addicted to meth by choice and that they “prefer vice to poverty” is ridiculous. Human rights reports coming out of Cambodia suggest that a majority of sex workers there are sold or otherwise trafficked into sexual slavery by misguided or malicious relatives, friends or intimate partners. And while there are women and men who become sex workers by choice–or as an alternative to poverty–they too are regularly mistreated and abused by customers and even the police.

By letting his desires (artistic, if not also physical) eclipse the sea of human rights violations he’s trampling through, D’Agata is taking sexual exploitation to a whole new level. On top of that, he manages to be artistically exploitative as well, by eliding issues of subject consent. Presumably he has paid these women for their time as sex workers, but has he paid them for their time as artistic subjects? Will they receive any of the accolades for this “hard-hitting” social commentary? What happens to these women after his time with them is done? Did they consent to having their photos splashed across the Internet? Where does the exchange of women as sex objects end and representation of women as art objects begin?

As for whether his photographs are compelling beyond their prurient sensationalism, they do have a certain basic aesthetic value, but other than as dubious social commentary they aren’t particularly interesting. They’re not anywhere near as beautiful as Robert Mapplethorpe’s nudes, they lack the objective quality of Brassaï’s social documentation and they don’t question or challenge notions of gender in the manner of much sexually graphic queer art.

D’Agata’s photographs are deliberately aesthetic, wistful and artfully distorted rather than gritty and dark; they resemble erotic art much more closely than documentary realism. He says,

My photographs have the innocence to believe that it is possible to hold together all the paradoxes that clatter in the margins of the modern world, to confront them without diverting the gaze. What is beautiful? It’s only a vocabulary question. I see beauty only in the immense pain and the fleeting passion of the destinies I glimpse.

I call foul on the use of the word “innocence,” and I also contend that the question of beauty is not as purely academic as he claims. Beauty depends on context. Exploitation is not beautiful. Out of context, how do we know that D’Agata’s work is social commentary rather than just exploitation? For that matter, in context, how do we know that D’Agata’s work is social commentary rather than just exploitation?

When D’Agata exploits women to make art, he can no longer be called a “social documentarian.” Instead, he is negligently contributing to, and even profiting from, the same system of sexual abuse, exploitation and poverty he’s supposedly trying to expose.

Image from cehwiedel under Creative Commons 3.0


  1. jfaraday says:

    "I see beauty only in the immense pain and the fleeting passion of the destinies I glimpse."

    Yes, it's so easy to find beauty in someone else's pain, in a pain he will never have to share except by reaping fame and money from it, in a pain that he is adding to (adding to its "beauty," right?) and participating in.

    Documenting the lives of sex workers is being a social documentarian. Taking pictures of yourself having sex with workers who, despite what your romanticized notions might be about their lives, probably would rather be somewhere else, is being part of the problem.

    I challenge M. D'Agata to be part of the solution by donating the profits from this project to organizations that help sex workers and/or trafficked women.

  2. Pablo Hemingway says:

    I didn't click on the links above so could not comment on the artistic nature or otherwise of the photos. Unfortunately many of the women are trafficked. What the Cambodian government did as a measure to prevent trafficking was to close many brothels. Whether this was guided by foriegn NGO's I don't know but it was a very bad decision. Keeping the brothels open meant that the girls could be monitored and human trafficking and health issues of the girls could be monitored. Shutting down the brothels simply drives them underground where it is far harder to monitor any of the key issues regarding sex workers. The issue around drugs is a key one, once the girls get hooked to crystal meth they need to get a minimum of $10 a day to feed their habit. They also go slightly crazy. There is a similar phenomena in Thailand and presumably other countries. A regular sex tourist had pointed out to me how the girls had changed. When you see girls like this it is quite disturbing. Therefore admission of the addiction of D’Agata to methamphetamine places him in no position to make any kind of rational judgement about anything. The drug he is addicted to is essentially a sex drug that enhances the pleasure of sex and enables women and men to engage in marathon sex sessions lasting up to several days. I would therefore suggest that D’Agata is also a sex addict while he is on the drug. He does of course have the benefit of possibly being able to pull himself out of the gutter. The girls he engages with are on a one way ticket to oblivion. In point of fact you can't help the majority of them, my Cambodian girlfriend has tried several times.. They will simply steal from you as they carry on their desperate path. Unfortunately once they have sold their body and soul or in most cases have had their body and soul sold there is little hope for their salvation in this life. I am not religious by the way and have been to brothels in Cambodia on less than five occassions. Frankly I found very little pleasure in the experience. A man I know who has had sex with what he says were hundreds of women in Asia told me that he could only recall 6 occassions that were memrorable, but prostitution has always been a part of sino asian culture and only a huge input of wealth would reduce that industry to more manageable levels. Sadly there are no simple answers. If there is one good thing to come out of this article it is to continue to demonstrate the plight of these girls, and the hope that some good hearted humans can help in some small way.

  3. You prefaced this article by saying you agree with sex work that is explicitly consented to. WTF does that mean exactly? This shows how little you know about the sex industry and the socio-economic conditions facing women in south east asia. How can consent exist in third world economies where women are of such low social esteem and with so few prospects. How facile of you to include this ‘throw away line’ that attempts to balance your article and in turn give credence to your denouncing D’Agata.

    • Si, I think she is referring to this in principle and the statement was not put into context of “East Asian Sex Industry” as you put it. I have no research on this – but I can at least imagine that in some cases it is consented to, in, for example, a Western society.

      Generally I agree with the view that D’Agata is in effect a sex-tourist with a camera. The issue here is that he uses photography not at a means to document and ‘do something against’ these issues – but indulges himself and creates art instead. I believe he’s full of Ice and Meth and Yabba, that he is lying to himself as so many drug addicts to and that he doesn’t even realise what he is doing.

      I actually feel sorry for him as he obviously has crossed a border of which there’s no coming back to and he will eventually realise what he did (hopefully) only to realise that he can’t undo this. I feel more sorry for his subjects of course who will die of Aids, be killed or have a horrible life.

      I feel that something has got to be said also about D’Agata’s sponsor: Magnum Photography. I think it is a disgrace that this oprganisation, who originally was founded to provide documented proves of the horrors of the Vietnam War in order to stop that war. It now sponsors a photographer who is a sextourist on Meth. The work has no true objective, no cause apart from art (and raising awareness is just a hypocritical claim that many so-called arrogant and self-indulgent photojournalists would raise). Awareness already exists, and in itself isn’t enough of a goal. And especially not if one abuses people in the process – no objective is good enough to allow for any form of exploitation.

      I disagree with the author in terms of the quality of the pictures – they are dark, they do show the horror, they are disgusting. It is not so much what they are, but how they were created which is revolting and inappropriate. In fact I wonder if artistic expression did go a few steps too far. This is not a Taboo – this is exploitation and indulgence.

      If he had done this very same work to document sex tourism and it’s ugly sides without indulging himself in the process, it would have been a different question altogether.

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