Image by A Londoner and James Hopkirk
Today we’ve published It’s What I Know, the thirteenth South London Story, by a Londoner and James Hopkirk. It’s a complex piece and it presented some particular ethical and practical challenges, so we wanted to write something about how and why, over the course of four years, we made it. We recommend reading the story before reading this blog.
I had a very different story in mind when I first approached the charity we met through, back in late 2017.
I’d been pointed towards The Spires Centre in Streatham by someone working in the homelessness sector. She told me that its outreach programme for sex workers was one of very few still running, and explained how little support there was generally.
She thought it was something I should write about for South London Stories, so I emailed Spires, had a couple of meetings and was invited to attend one of its groups.
I was introduced to everyone as a journalist, there to understand what the charity did, the issues the service users faced, and to write about it. I explained that nothing anyone talked to me about would be used without their consent. I think everyone was a little bemused at first, but it was a very friendly and open environment and from the start I was made to feel welcome.
The luxury of a project like South London Stories, where there’s never a deadline, is that I get to spend time with people who I won’t write about, but who generously share their experiences and expertise in confidence to help me better understand things. I was there to learn.
Over the next few months I went every week, and also spent time shadowing staff and volunteers. I was starting to build up the material – photographs, observations and background knowledge – for a traditional photo story about a frontline charity and its service users. That was the story I thought I’d come to write.
I remember the first group you turned up to. My worker was leading me in and when I saw you, I just froze. You were sat in my seat and I was not impressed. I always felt safer when I could sit facing the door.
“He’s a journalist,” she said to me. “His name’s James. Give him a chance.”
As the weeks went by, you saw how little I knew, especially about the online side of things, and so you patiently started to explain.
At first, I thought I might end up asking if you’d be willing to be interviewed anonymously for my piece – but I was pretty sure you’d say no, and I was just grateful for all the knowledge you were sharing with me.
As time went on, however, I started to see the potential for something different from the piece I’d set out to write – a creative collaboration.
The first time I knew you wanted to work with me was when I got a very long email from you. I was confused. Why would you want to work with me? That was my first thought, and it was quite a dominant thought for a while. Hence the opening to the story.
Even much later, after we’d written up a contract including a clause stating what should happen if I died, I still hadn’t decided.
What I proposed was co-creation and co-authorship – sharing creative control and ownership of all aspects of the story. What I didn’t suggest was anything to do with how we’d tell it, or what we’d be telling. I had no idea, and that was the point.
The contract we eventually created laid it all out: approach, ownership, safeguarding – and of course the death clause, which I found pretty sobering. We kept a copy each and your support worker got one too.
I think all this was only remotely possible because we’d known each other for several months by that point, so we were able to discuss it in a frank and honest way.
You were very frank about safeguarding. In fact, you were persistent to the point of being a bit annoying, so at first it felt like a bit of a chore.
I didn’t really want to tell many people because I thought they’d think I was self-entitled and privileged to be writing a story about myself. I didn’t think I could talk to other sex workers about it because we’re always warned off talking to journalists. From what I’d heard from other sex workers, you tend to be looked down on or victimised if you do it and don’t get paid.
So you had to push me to check in with people. But when I did, I found they were actually interested – and they did raise concerns at various points when needed.
I can see now how important it is to have a safeguarding process in place for a story like this. I think people underestimate how hard it is to tell these things – and how hard it is to listen.
On that last point, you surprised me by saying you wouldn’t work with me unless I had support available as well. You explained that your support workers had structures in place – people they could talk to if they found things difficult to hear – for good reason, and that it should be no different for me. That was something I hadn’t considered before.
But in terms of safeguarding you, I think having one of your workers as the defined safeguarding lead was key. She’s remained in that role despite moving to another charity, because you trust her. Other people have played important safeguarding roles along the way, but making one person the primary point of contact was critical.
That role was about giving you an advocate in the process who you could check in with and raise concerns with – and who knew you well enough to raise concerns themselves if they thought it was having a negative impact. It was also about giving you a way out. If you hadn’t felt able to tell me you wanted to stop, you could tell her and she could tell me.
I think that’s important when you work with someone long-term. There’s a risk as time goes on that it becomes harder to say no – not because of conscious pressure or coercion, but because a misplaced sense of loyalty can develop. Some might use that as a manipulative strategy, but even with good intentions I think it can happen unless you watch out for it – and keep talking about it.
We put strategies in place to try to prevent a sense of momentum building up – pauses and weeks where we’d meet for a coffee but not talk about the story. We’d also check in regularly, to make sure you were still happy to continue, and with the direction the story was going in, so that nothing was assumed.
When we first talked about what the story should be about, I assumed it would have to be all about sex work. You threw me when you said it could be about anything. That meant the choice was mine.
I knew I didn’t want it to be like the things I’d already read – sensational, voyeuristic… Google prostitute or sex worker and you’ll get the idea.
I also didn’t want to present as either a victim, a survivor or a sex worker who loves her job. Or, for that matter, as someone who hadn’t been doing it for very long.
Because of fears around identification, I knew it couldn’t be a linear, day-by-day story, as that would be too risky – so we had to find a way to talk about my experiences without making it easy to identify me.
I presented you with this long list of restrictions, and you came up with the idea of what you called vignettes – short snapshots on different topics related to my life.
I think it was about more than just concerns around identification. You also had no interest in a traditionally told story, so you pushed us to come up with something more original.
We mapped out the areas you wanted to cover on a massive sketchpad. At that point we didn’t know the order the vignettes would end up going in, and the order we worked on them is very different to the order they appear in the piece.
Some were harder for you to work on than others – and often not the ones I expected. Some ideas on the sketchpad we decided were too risky to tackle. Others, we worked on but then dropped.
So I think the choice to use vignettes was about risks around identification and taking a less traditional narrative path – but also about breaking it up into chunks, to make writing and editing it less daunting.
Some of the devices we planned and others happened by accident. Three of the vignettes are words that have been said or written to me. They shaped my experience and, I think, highlight it better than I can sometimes. I was struck by your reaction when I told you things that had been said to me, particularly by the punters but also by people more generally.
I didn’t need to explain how the words made me feel – that would have made it a more traditional story. The words themselves were enough.
With what we called the “In the moment” bits – the short, jarring sentences between each vignette – they’re all real. All things I was thinking, hearing or seeing at the time. I wanted them to mirror the timeline of seeing a punter, so it starts with something I heard going into one booking and ends with what I thought leaving another.
I wanted to try to convey the experience of a flashback for the reader, and although really it’s nothing like a flashback, it does interrupt the main train of thought. Sometimes these phrases pop into my head randomly, and when they do they’re accompanied by a whole story in their own right.
Which leads me onto another of the devices. This story was about me and my experiences, but a part of that experience was writing it with you. I was adamant that your voice had to be included too, to highlight the collaboration – that this was something we’d worked on together. You weren’t too keen at first.
My concern was that I thought it would feel like I was trying to shoehorn myself into your story and make it about me.
You let me put it off while we worked on other parts of the story, but I eventually started thinking about how much we’d discussed over email and text. I went back through everything and pasted relevant bits into a document so we could review it. It was really interesting – it told the story behind the story.
So the conversation running through the piece comes from early emails and messages, unedited other than where […] highlights that something’s been cut. They’re not always in the order they were sent, however. We ordered them to establish a parallel, intentionally more linear, narrative.
It’s worth pointing out that we only used messages sent up to the point where I created that document. Otherwise it would have been artificial.
I think they perform a few functions. They’re intended to offer an insight into how we worked on it, but also to create a tonal contrast with some of the more difficult passages. In some cases we wanted them to be ambiguous and raise uncomfortable questions.
That’s an important element of the piece. We want readers to be considering the ethics of this story as they read it – but also of journalism more broadly. I think the vignette on Collectors highlights an uncomfortable overlap between the mindsets of documentarians and punters.
So those are the words. Quite complex, I suppose. In contrast, the photography is meant to be taken at face value – it doesn’t have a deeper meaning. They are intended to be mundane pictures of mundane streets with mundane captions.
To be clear, these are all real places where I have seen punters. I explained that it was frustrating that people seem to think we’re just these magical pixies, not real people in the real world. Unless you work with us, know us personally or fuck us, we don’t really exist. And people definitely don’t want us in their back yard. But guess what? We are.
I bought an old-fashioned A-Z to plan the locations we needed to shoot, based on your records. In most cases, other than the street work locations, they were shot on the same day of the week, at the same time, as a specific booking.
I had to shoot from your point of view, where you’d stood, facing the direction you’d faced, before meeting that punter. I got the first few pictures wrong because I shot them from my height, so I went back and shot them again with the tripod a bit lower.
Others I had to reshoot because the scene wasn’t quite right – too many people, not enough people, too sunny, too dark. They had to feel right to you.
From a technical point of view, some locations just didn’t work – the angle and time of day meant I was shooting directly into the sun, or the scene was horribly contrasty. To convey the right feeling, they still had to work as photographs.
Your discomfort around cameras, and not wanting to revisit certain locations, meant I’d be shooting by myself, so once we’d come up with the idea, you gave me instructions for how to shoot each scene. I’d bring images when we met later that week and work out if I needed to reshoot anything. I might have clicked the shutter, but the concept we came up with together, and you were the director.
For me, the impact of the photographs and captions is cumulative. Their ordinariness is a reminder that while most people may not see it, sex is being sold around us, across the city, at all times of day. But I think there’s also a sense of discomfort that grows as the reader sees more of them. That was certainly the intention.
I think the more we worked on the story, the more complex it became, as we saw how multifaceted the issues we wanted to explore were. Some aspects of the piece were designed to elicit an emotional response, some to make people question things and some to address other people’s assumptions and their intentions – particularly the punters.
But this piece wasn’t only written with punters in mind, so hello to those of you who are not. Some of you will have had experiences similar to my own and know just how hard it is to explain even the way a punter looks at you sometimes, let alone explain all of your experiences, particularly the conflicting ones. Some of you will be advocates, campaigners or support us, perhaps on one side of the debate or the other, or somewhere in between. To you, I only ask that you do not use my voice to speak for all of us. For those of you who knew nothing, or very little, I guess I hope we’ve shown you some of the complexities, the stigma and the proximity this has to your life.
And finally, to journalists. This is not a how-to guide. This is not a piece giving you permission to hound everyone who has sold or been sold for sex. I think it’s fair to say that we knew there were risks when we went into this, and it’s been a steep learning curve, but ultimately, because we’ve been working on this for four years (due in part to some pandemic pauses) we’ve established trust, and an open and honest dialogue. Just as importantly, we developed a shared creative vision. These things have enabled us to do this as safely as possible, but make no mistake, there have been missteps along the way.
I’m scared of this story, but I still want to publish it. Because even though I know it could be used, exploited, twisted or silenced, unlike with punters there’s a chance that it might remind some people that we are human too.
Read It’s What I Know on the South London Stories website here.