Honoring the Red Light District | Nations


27th May 2024

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Honoring the Red Light District

Do Cameras Help or Harm?

In situations of extreme exploitation requiring complex care it is crucial to ask the hard questions about ethical storytelling.

Rotlichtviertel (Red light district) 

I spent the majority of my twenties frequenting a place that was historically used within the walls of a city as a medieval women’s prison. I would visit women who live, work and sleep there, rarely venturing beyond a small radius around the district. This specific street, frauentormauer has the word for woman in its name.  It is built into the very fabric of the city, even while many pretend it doesn’t exist. A city whose reputation is known for both immense darkness and human rights accountability. 

The city wall is the border of this place, the rotlichtviertel.  This is the place where women spend their days and nights standing in the windows. These women, some of them dear friends, look up from their phone screens and out these windows, staring out at the city wall that keeps them enveloped within the folds of a bustling downtown.  Here in the red light district, women are overlooked, orphaned by society, tucked away and hidden in plain sight. 

Fotografierverbot (No Photos Allowed) 

There are strict rules surrounding red-light districts. Sex work in Germany is a legal and legitimate career. Sex workers have rights, similar to other professions. Sex workers can unionize, although the vast majority do not even register for a number of reasons. According to a 2018 study, only seventy-six sex workers were registered, compared to the overall estimated 200,000 sex workers in Germany. Signs are posted outside of every red light district that clearly state “No minors, no women, and no photographs allowed.” These regulations are stated for everyone’s protection.

Cameras make things complicated. For social workers who spend their time with the women, keeping the “no photo rule” in particular is integral to the work. The goal is to honor both their humanity and to respect the image of God they carry. Not doing so would be counterproductive to the reasons we were there in the first place: to build relationships with, and dignify, those who are at the margins of society. To bring restoration and redemption to people’s lives and stories through loving, authentic relationships and meeting practical needs. 

It is important to understand the ways in which having a camera present, or how taking photographs can erode the sacred power of meeting others face-to-face. A camera automatically changes the dynamic of this embodied work. A camera is a statement, an ask. It communicates an expectation: a desire to gather imagery. The camera’s purpose is to capture the subject. This is a delicate thing, always, but especially in the red light district. It potentially interrupts the fragile give and take between people and asks: can this vulnerability be captured? Things change when cameras mingle with ministry.

Things change when cameras mingle with ministry.

Missverständnis (Misunderstanding, Misconception)

To the majority of Americans, when one thinks of a red light district, they think of sensationalized media— blockbuster movies, vivid imagery, and salacious behavior. The spectrum of people’s attitudes ranges from judgment, disgust and contempt, to bewilderment and curiosity. By interjecting two words: “Human Trafficking ” the narrative can become so filled with drama that we lose sight of the people at the heart of it. We can reduce something with a lot of nuance to buzzword phrases, abolitionist campaigns, logos of dark silhouettes in high heels, chained or imprisoned behind bars. Images like this fan the flames of a movement, often with the best of intentions. Sensationalism on both sides contributes to the precariousness of an already tumultuous situation. 

It is easy to get caught up in the call to stand for righteousness in the face of injustice. Answering a call is necessary, noble and courageous. It is often far easier for us to turn a blind eye and rationalize why it is not our challenge to take on. But we run the risk of getting caught up in a way that blurs the truth. We can experience the sweeping experience of fury in the face of injustice and unbridled passion. Our response is often  to hastily rise to the occasion in the ways we know how, some acting out of intense emotion without first learning and listening. 

However, it is this misguided, emotionally-driven answer to that call that makes it all the more challenging for people to have an educated, accurate, and holistic understanding of what it was for a sex worker to be working in a red light district, a situation of hyper-complexity and nuance. This is a context that can create powerful images and often of the type that does little to help us understand the intricate layers of these circumstances. Camera touting ministry activism, ignited by Instagram and volunt-ourism, and hopeful advocacy can make “meeting people where they’re at” take a drastically different turn with lasting consequences.  

It is in this ecosystem where harm can be perpetuated through cliches, often through the use of images taken without consent. Sex workers are reduced to “women in cages.” We claim to be a “voice for the voiceless.” It is easy to make blanket statements based on half-truths and narrow cultural assumptions. Our understanding from a distance can be littered with misconceptions and it is even easier to cling to these cliches when they are supported by provocative images without context. 

When talking about those on the margins of society, those who are vulnerable, we encounter an invitation to enlightenment and to empathy. It is an invitation that asks for more than cliches. It calls for deeper conversation, de-stigmatization and attention to the fault lines caused by sweeping statements and irresponsible images. In order to respect the innate humanity of those individuals we serve, there stands a great need for awareness and education about how and how not to answer the call of injustice.  It is patient work. Slow work. Work that requires time, grace, gentleness and space. 

When our fervor can be redirected in a way that is more constructive and conducive to restorative work in the long-term, that is where the sustainable and lasting transformation takes place.

Gefahr (Risk) 

Unfortunately, this slow work of listening and building relationships without strings attached, is often interrupted by the Church’s response – one unfortunately informed by these cliches and sensationalized images. While I don’t want to over-generalize about the state of the American church and its evangelical mission, I witnessed circumstances where long-term, nuanced ministry was hindered by zealous intervention. These unfortunate encounters with those hoping to help were most often driven by a desire to have quick and measurable results, frequently for the sake of obtaining more funding. This is tragic. 

There was often an overemphasis on the “salvation and conversion” metric as the driving force of operations. The reality of raising support for ministry, created undue pressure to account for a measurable impact. While it is understandable to want to see and experience change for the better, I’ve seen this underlying desire to quantify complex ministry lead to questionably ethical practices. It is dangerous to minister from a place where salvation and the need to turn a profit mingle. It is far too easy for saved souls to be counted and stories to be exploited. Acting out of this constrained environment means misaligned behavior that differs from how Jesus would encounter people. People under pressure quantify human experiences to satisfy the hunger of holy conquest in the name of the Gospel, and it leads to misconceptions while people’s hearts and stories are betrayed. 

In light of this, it is imperative to name risks and consequences. Photographs jeopardize delicate and intricate relationships. Those trusting relationships are the prerequisite for so much of this crucial work. We must ask whether the potential benefit of building the momentum of a movement for social justice is indeed worth jeopardizing those relationships.  A framework like this includes a built-in risk of objectification.There is an inherent power differential when holding a camera. Consent–true consent– is a harder and increasingly complex thing to ethically secure with an imbalance of power a camera can create. Many people are involved in sex work in secret. Trauma, poverty, coercion, exploitation and cultural norms are all factors that may contribute to a sex worker’s situation. In most cases, the final product, whether that be in a film or publication, as well as compensation seldom makes it back to the subject. Multiple languages, burner phones, location changes stand against that chance.

Having a camera present means that women are at risk of being identified in a way that can create unnecessary exposure and vulnerability. It can be psychologically harmful. It can mean invading their privacy and capturing images that are not accurate to the full story, contributing to false narratives. It can mean the loss of relational trust. The unwitting commodification of someone’s story is dangerous. Those at the margins of society are all too often treated only like victims and problems, and can position the successful results of an organization above the well-being of the people being served.

The consequences of this vary from loss of trust, to loss of relationships and loss of safety. It means that women experience a type of extended vulnerability when their image is out in the world, especially when they are misinformed and lack understanding of what that exposure might mean for them down the line. Of the unknown ways that ripple effect may play out in their families and futures. 

For example a few brief stories from the field:

A visiting American woman with her camera in the red light district photographed the women as proof to her home church of the work they were doing, despite knowing the involved risk. She was yelled at by a sex worker, and those working long-term experienced breaks in trust and relationships.  

One sex worker was found by her pimp after she had left and fled to another city because a selfie was taken by a volunteer worker with her location tagged on social media.

One girl was identified by her family members back home after she appeared in a documentary that aimed to shed light on human trafficking and sex work. Her family disowned her, and the unbearable shame and abandonment led her to take her own life.

die Humanität (Humanity)

My work in this field up until that point was spent walking the street and looking women in the eyes. It sounds nonchalant and unnecessary. Yet, it is the simplest, most humanizing form of human connection. It does not involve touch, a common language, or close proximity. Earnest glances held with intention softens hearts, offers kindness, and lends a sense of safety to extreme vulnerability.  It is love in the simplest form, recognizing the humanity of the other, and inviting them toward the process of reintegrating their bodies and experiences. Recognizing the soul in a place where extreme objectification is the norm is a powerful thing. 

Long term, we make friends. We build relationships. For years, we dined with them in their brothel rooms. Told each other life stories. Talked about our boyfriends and husbands. Visitors would come from down the hall, and gatherings would grow. They know us. Know our names. Know the names of our friends. We knew theirs too. 

We walked the long road of cancer treatment (twice) with one. We sat in parks, and went shopping with them. Ate late-night snacks with them. Shared space heaters in tight spaces on winter nights. Threw baby showers, accompanied them to doctors appointments and job interviews, talked to lawyers and police with them, celebrated first days of school, birthdays, graduations,  and caught coffees before long train journeys. 

In this type of work authenticity must come first. Trust must come first. For those in this for the long haul, cameras are seldom present until the true sense of companionship was cultivated– and only then to document closeness of relationship, communion and celebration.

Jesus taught us to love one another as ourselves. He told us to care for the widow and orphan. To treat each other with dignity and respect. He loved women, protected women and championed women. When he encountered others in need of help, who were outcasts of society, who were on the borders of townships and outside of city gates, he did not call undue attention to them. He did not make a spectacle. He humbly served them, healed them, called them higher through gentle conversation. It was often the religious community that escalated these situations, leveraging these people as weapons in their attacks on Christ.

When one seeks to help with a camera in tow, the main question to always ask is “how is that helping?” For those who need to report back to churches or missions organizations it is essential that they  should ask themselves: Is this camera helping me tell people’s stories in a dignified way? Am I misrepresenting the subject of the story? Does this take away from this person’s sense of self or safety? We must never forget that the ultimate priority is the soul that stands opposite of you. 

Recognizing the soul in a place where extreme objectification is the norm is a powerful thing.

Achtung (Attention)

If we’re not careful, cameras can hinder the slow and nuanced, but rewarding, relational work that doesn’t flatten people into caricatures as a means to an end, but sees them the way God made them as image bearers. Cameras can be powerful tools for justice, but should always serve the people they capture rather than exploit them. 

Those on the margins of society are not voiceless. They have voices, and perhaps the problem is that they are not being listened to. It is disempowering to label people as “voiceless”, especially if the aim is advocacy. God has given them voices. It is important to tease through the narrative for the sake of a holistic understanding of these complex social issues and actually seek to meet their needs. True advocacy isn’t to give them the voice we think they should have. It is to meet the individual with unselfish love. It is to sit in the brothel room and quietly listen. 

True advocacy isn’t to give them the voice we think they should have. It is to meet the individual with unselfish love. It is to sit in the brothel room and quietly listen.


Photo by Claire Henning

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Claire Henning

Claire Henning

Claire is a writer and non-profit founder with a decade of experience in international humanitarian work. She resides in North County San Diego.