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In Amsterdam’s Red Light District, Street Artists Tell Tourists: “No Fucking Photos”

Though Amsterdam’s sex workers have long reprimanded tourists attempting to take pictures of them, doing some has become much harder in the age of the smartphone.

Partial view of Trompettersteeg with <em>No Fucking Photos</em> murals (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)
Partial view of Trompettersteeg with No Fucking Photos murals (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

AMSTERDAM — Things used to be different for sex workers in De Wallen, Amsterdam’s biggest red light district. If a window worker spied a tourist trying to take a photograph, she could march outside, grab the camera, and rip the film out. As testament to the area’s strict no-photos policy, curled up rolls of film used to tumble through the narrow streets and into the canals. Now, though, almost everyone has a camera in his or her pocket, and challenging someone to stop using it is likely to only escalate the problem by attracting ever more camera-wielding passersby to film the confrontation and then, worse, upload it to YouTube.

In a 2014 post on her popular blog Behind the Red Light District, the Romanian De Wallen worker Felicia Anna outlined some of the reasons why sex workers do not want to be photographed. “Sharing videos and photos online of us is exposing (us) not only to everyone else in the world, but more importantly, also could expose us to our family and friends,” she wrote. “Besides the fact that this could lead to problems with families and friends not accepting our jobs, and therefore being outcast … this could also lead to family and friends being daily confronted by other people who recognize us on the video, and having to deal with discrimination and being outcast themselves from their communities for something they didn’t have any choice in.”

Partial view of Trompettersteeg with No Fucking Photos murals
Partial view of Trompettersteeg with No Fucking Photos murals

For years, a small sticker with the image of a camera with a red cross through it has been prominently displayed in the windows of brothels in De Wallen. Yet the problem persists. “The point is that if you are a tourist who doesn’t see a sex worker as a human being, the fact that she has a sticker on the window doesn’t mean shit to you,” Yvette Luhrs, chairperson of the Netherlands’ sex worker union PROUD, told Hyperallergic. The attitude of the tourists, she said, is: “you are standing there, you want to be seen, and, by the way, you’re a whore so I am not listening to you.”

De Wallen’s sex workers have tried to find ways to deal with it. They are “throwing everything they can find at people who are taking photographs.” Luhrs said. “We always try to communicate (the issue), especially when people are visiting the Prostitute Information Centre [a sex worker-founded community and resource center, which hosts PROUD]. But it’s not enough. The problem is that all these tourists, they are acting like they are in a zoo. They come because there is something to watch. It’s very dehumanizing.”

Partial view of Trompettersteeg with No Fucking Photos murals
Partial view of Trompettersteeg with No Fucking Photos murals

A newly launched street art project featuring murals by Amsterdam artists Beazarility and Sjem Bakkus is taking a different approach to addressing this issue, beseeching visitors to “Respect the Ladies.” No Fucking Photos was initiated by the business association Rondom de Oude Kerk (or “Around the Old Church”) in collaboration with the Amsterdam Street Art Foundation and sponsored by several local businesses — including the tour operator Dutch Tour Company — that are based along Trompettersteeg, allegedly the city’s narrowest alley, where the artwork is located.

Salomé Trip-Wagenhuis runs Dutch Tour Company with her husband and is chairperson of the business association. She told Hyperallergic that she and her husband “have seen and experienced how disrespectful some visitors can be to the sex workers. So when we launched Sailor Memoire, our previous street art project, we decided to dedicate a part to the sex workers and ask people to not make photos. This helped some, but unfortunately not enough. So we decided to take it a step further, to use the whole alley specifically for a street art project that would ask for respect for sex workers.

Partial view of Trompettersteeg with No Fucking Photos murals
Partial view of Trompettersteeg with No Fucking Photos murals

“It is something people will definitely notice and remember,” she said of the pink and black stencils. “It’s more direct than our previous street art.”

Trip-Wagenhuis said that they sought approval of the artwork from sex workers and that they have received feedback from workers saying that, when entering the alley from the street art side, “a lot less people (dare to) take a photo (and) some people start having a talk with each other about why they think taking a photo is inappropriate.”

She added: “We hope, of course, that this will become a movement bigger than our alley.”

Partial view of Trompettersteeg with No Fucking Photos murals
Partial view of Trompettersteeg with No Fucking Photos murals

PROUD, however, was not aware of the project before its launch. “I’m not sure if it helps,” Said Luhrs. “I haven’t heard anything (from sex workers) like ‘there’s no photos being taken anymore in this street,’ so I don’t know if it works. I don’t know if people are more aware. It would have been nice if we would have known (about it) because I would have loved to have done research on that; to see if people (started to) feel differently after the art came into place.

“I always think that when you create something for sex workers, you should involve sex workers,” Luhrs added, while stressing that she does not know if independent sex workers not associated with PROUD were contacted. Nevertheless, given that the union is at the forefront of the movement for better workers’ rights, it seems a problem of such magnitude might benefit from a more coordinated response.

No Fucking Photos is located on Trompettersteeg in Amsterdam’s Old City. See images on Instagram @nofuckingphotos.

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