Kate Peters’ Cam Girls is a startling and unusual portrait series. Her pixelated images are photographs of a computer screen, and the women on them make their living offering online sexual performances. She collaborates with these women to make art at a distance, offering a contemporary picture of a long-taboo subject.
The term “cam girl” can mean many things. Broadly speaking, it refers to a woman who earns money performing online. Such performances usually, but not always, are sexual in nature. From stripping to balloon-popping, there is a niche for every fetish. Though there is an infinite number of porn sites that provide such entertainment, Peters chose to focus on women who worked for themselves from the comfort of their homes. “I only wanted to collaborate with independent women, rather than those that go through one of the many studio sites,” she says.
Peters won the women’s trust through ongoing email conversations, convincing them that she was interested in art, not exploitation. It was slow going, but after the first few women agreed, one contact led to another, making way for more collaboration. Peters paid a flat fee of $50 for 45 minutes of their time and a signed model release. She met with the women on Skype, and all of their interactions occurred electronically.
“I would dial in from my office in London with my camera and headset mic on so they could see I was who I said I was—which was for many the main concern,” she says.
The photographer would then go through the tedious process of directing the scene, often with bad Internet connections. The woman would guide her through their homes or the room in which they worked, and she would choose where to set up. The backgrounds and props were things they used regularly. After setting the scene, Peters would direct the women into position, holding up reference images in the camera as a guide. Peters then took screen shots of her computer screen, which she later rephotographed with a large format film camera. The images are pixelated and full of glitches and bright colors, perfectly capturing the ephemeral experience of online video streaming.
Peters met a variety of women—a student paying for college, a former cop and a secretary. For many of them, camming is their primary source of income. They’re all fiercely protective of their personal lives, playing a role when the cam turns on. Some women scrupulously hid their professions from their loved ones, one even recounted performing as her partner made dinner. Peters was fascinated by their ability to move between fiction and reality so easily.
“One woman said she would pop into the kitchen to get some yogurt drink and he’d [her partner] think she was just thirsty and she would be getting something to pour on her breasts,” says Peters. “At this point her partner was unaware of her job. She’d go back into her work room and be in character again, fulfilling the fantasies of a man on the other side of the world.”
The photographer chose poses that mimicked 19th century western art nudes. The colors and languid nature of the portraits have a painterly quality, offering a surreal dignity to a taboo scene. Peters feels conflicted about the reasons someone might choose such a career, but wants the photos to be a catalyst for discussions on feminism, femininity and empowerment.
“The female body has long been idealized, objectified and fetishized and the nude is an incredibly loaded subject matter,” she says. “I wanted to produce images that open a debate, to produce beautiful images of a subject matter that is not so palatable, nude images of women who are very much in control of themselves, who have chosen this occupation.”