During the 2020 crisis, sex workers around the world had to change and adapt to different circumstances the year brought, women and men had to move to different media to work and be able to afford basic living. Photographer Gabriella N. Báez (@gabriellanbaez) portrays the new obstacles queer sex workers faced in Puerto Rico after weeks of closed bars and economic recession, but most importantly she shows the issues and dangers the community already had, even before the pandemic.
Gabriella initiated the series Island Putxs to document the experiences of her friends, students who took on sex work to get by. Báez says that in the case of college students, they have to evaluate their future and what can be achieved in Puerto Rico, because it is a country that has been in an ongoing crisis state, whether it be social, political, or economic issues that are only exacerbated by natural disasters, with all of those difficulties last year many students had to choose this source of income.
The project explores the particular case of queer communities in Puerto Rico. Gabriella explains that “despite Caribbean popular culture being classified as hyper-sexual; misogyny, homophobia, and transphobia continue to play a role in the marginalization of sex workers” and it is not exclusively the culture that causes marginalization, but also the consequential criminalization of sex work on the Island and the normalized persecution, harassment, and assassination of the transgender community in particular.
Criminalization in Puerto Rico poses a threat to the safety of sex workers, who encounter many obstacles in the justice system when seeking accountability of their abusers. Gabriella explains that is usual for them to be arrested if police find that they are carrying condoms. As workers, they are also economically vulnerable, because they cannot access the economic relief and unemployment financial support. Despite the many hardships, they have found support among themselves, creating a strong community that looks after its members.
It scares me, I’m afraid of going out. My mental health has been affected by all this…because when I work on the street, I don’t necessarily know who I’m meeting, what kind of client this is. I used to stand in the streets of Santurce, and now I don’t know how I’m going to do that because of how scared I am for my life. They can just come by and shoot me as they did with Alexa [Negrón Luciano, a trans woman murdered in February]. What difference is there between Alexa and me? None, because like her, I am a poor transgender black woman. They hate us in this country.
Unlike her usual mixed media work, Báez decided to take a different approach using portraits and a documentary style. For this series, the author worked closely with the subjects, collaborating on what was included in the final project to accurately represent their personal and human experiences as sex workers. Báez says it is important for her to get their consent and not perpetuate harm towards sex workers and marginalized communities. As a photographer, Gabriella's purpose is to share her platform with these communities as a collaborative project, she is not their voice but their equal.
Through Island Putxs, Báez seeks to humanize this community and motivate people to help their local sex work sectors through the different organizations that every country has. The message of the series is:
that sex work is work and that if we want to understand political, gender, racial, economic, and migration issues (among others) we should listen to the experiences of sex workers.
Gabriella N. Báez is a multimedia and documentary Puerto Rican photographer, based in San Juan. Through her work she is currently focusing on issues regarding the experiences of the queer community, and also on personal subjects about the history of her family and other personal experiences; she defines her projects as “raw, intimate and personal”. She has been published in multiple media such as The New York Times, CNN, Reuters, and others. She has also won multiple awards and grants like the PHmuseum Women Photographers Grant and The Woman Photograph + Nikon grant, among others. She is a fellow and grantee of Magnum Foundation Photography and Social Justice.