19 Striking Photos Show What A BDSM Dungeon Really Looks Like (NSFW)

Photo: Courtesy of Susan Meiselas/Magnum Photos.
This post was originally published on Oct 27, 2015.

The location of Pandora's Box, one of New York City's most elite S&M dungeons, isn't a secret: The Manhattan facility advertises its address on its website. If you aren't a staff member or client, however, access is tricky — one of the reasons that Pandora's Box, documentary photographer Susan Meiselas' 1995 photo series of intimate encounters in the dungeon, is so powerful.

Widely known for her work documenting human rights issues in Latin America (she took the iconic "Molotov Man" photograph, which came to symbolize the Sandinista overthrow of Nicaragua's Somoza dictatorship), Meiselas recalls that Pandora's Box attracted an audience that may not otherwise have considered BDSM culture. "There were people who knew my work on human rights and mass graves in the '80s, who didn’t understand this," she says. "When I began to talk about this question of what is really going on between these two people in this space, the giving and the desire for pain, the people who knew my work would not have pursued it themselves, but they found it more interesting."

To mark the 20th anniversary of the photo series, we spoke with Meiselas about her immersion in a community that's not often open to outsiders — as well as her take on how attitudes toward sex and BDSM have shifted. "Of course it's a secret world," she says of Pandora's Box. "Of course it's also true that many of the men wear masks, so their identities were protected; that’s why my relationship with the dominatrix was key. It was key that they wanted me there."

Thanks to the trust she established with her subjects, Meiselas' photos capture dominatrices and clients performing "not so much for my camera, but for each other," she says. Click through for 19 striking images of this performative exchange, alongside reflections from Meiselas.
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"Asphyxiation by Mistress Beatrice III, the Medical Room." Photo: Courtesy of Susan Meiselas/Magnum Photos.
Tell me about the process of creating Pandora’s Box.
"The important context is the work I did in the '70s with Carnival Strippers, because I was thinking about the sex industry, and in that period, it began to explode in a number of ways. In the cities, they began to have lap dancing, pornography videos began circulating, and the whole means by which people either indulged or were invited to participate in sex was shifting in this period to be more public. Nick Broomfield, who is a British filmmaker, was commissioned by HBO to do a television documentary on S&M [Fetishes, 1996]. He knew the work and book I had done in Carnival Strippers and invited me to see Pandora's Box, this particular club in New York where he was filming."
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"Whipping of Maria I, The Role Play Room." Photo: Courtesy of Susan Meiselas/Magnum Photos.
"So it wasn’t really an abstract idea for me — it was really in response to the work I had done 20 years before that. Nick was shooting his film as I was taking photographs, though we were not often in the same rooms during the sessions. My encounter was very strong. The club was on the 10th floor of a loft building, on 18th Street, just off Fifth Avenue. I had no idea what to expect. I had no images in my mind of what I was even looking for."
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"Mistress Catherine after the Whipping I, The Versailles Room." Photo: Courtesy of Susan Meiselas/Magnum Photos.
"In some ways, the experience was very theatrical. I was behind the scenes of a world that was very codified, so I learned about that world by being there long hours, for many weeks. It was immersive, in the sense that I literally would go at maybe two or three in the afternoon and stay until, sometimes, two in the morning, because it wasn’t a regular day in any sense. Every hour might have been a paid hour for a dominatrix, or I would see them searching for clients online and calling people directly."
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"Mistress Kayla with Slave I, The Versailles Room." Photo: Courtesy of Susan Meiselas/Magnum Photos.
"It was very early in internet technology. There's one photograph in the book where they have, I think, a really primitive Mac SE. It's a tiny, little square. This was long before everyone had laptops or smartphones. Of course the online sex business has exploded since then, with sexual encounters via webcams."
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"Ready for Mistress Kayla, The Dungeon." Photo: Courtesy of Susan Meiselas/Magnum Photos.
"I did this work in '95, even though it was printed and published in 2001. It was intense. I depended on the dominatrix to, one, want to participate...and two, decide that there were clients that they would invite to participate, knowing they would be photographed, and thus agree that they were willing to be seen and have me in the presence of their exchange.

"There were some women who didn’t participate at all, so if I was in the dressing room or in the collective space that they shared, I was sensitive to the women who perhaps did not want to be photographed for whatever...reasons. Many of them had double lives. You know, they had day jobs... Some of them have children... There were a few women who wanted to make sure that the work would be discreet, so there are some photographs that emphasize their anonymity. That decision was all in response to talking to the women about, 'If I'm in the session with you, are you comfortable with X, X, X?' There were women who had more toleration, [who felt] that they were not at risk — and others who felt they were."
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"The Dressing Room III." Photo: Courtesy of Susan Meiselas/Magnum Photos.
What were the exchanges between dominatrix and client like?
"The signaling that the submissive would give to the dominatrix was very key — in fact, essential. Whether it was calling out 'Mistress, mercy,' or...the client identifying the kind of whip...the degree of any of the beatings, et cetera. All of these decisions that the submissives made were about the degree to which they were willing to be as vulnerable as they, in a way, could tolerate. So that was a fascinating negotiation, most of which I was able to sit in on."
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"Reception I." Photo: Courtesy of Susan Meiselas/Magnum Photos.
"That negotiation was in contrast to the world I had documented previously, which was not being able to see the torture in places like Latin America, where I focused on human rights abuse. I might have been in the interrogation cells of prisoners in the aftermath, but the torture itself I could only imagine. It was very different to experience and be exposed to this dynamic of choice and wonder what it means to service the desire for pain."
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"Mistresses Solitaire and Delilah II, the Dressing Room." Photo: Courtesy of Susan Meiselas/Magnum Photos.
Did anything surprise you about shooting the series?
"In a way, the whole world of S&M surprised me. I had no idea how elaborate it was, how broad a representation of men participated in it. To see the real diversity of incomes among those who participated was also surprising. There were kinds of fetishes that I had no idea people had, and the intimacy they achieved and the kind of relationships that were sustained over long periods of time... For many, it wasn’t just a one-time, in-and-out. It was a sustained relationship and very personal."
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"Mistress Rose eavesdropping." Photo: Courtesy of Susan Meiselas/Magnum Photos.
What was the release of the photos like?
"When we launched the book at the Whitney Museum, we had a book-signing event. What was most interesting was that the women who were the dominatrixes came thinking that it was really a celebration of them — and so it was a very different environment. The subjects saw themselves as the centerpiece. To celebrate, it wasn’t about the signature on a book of an author making a body of work; it was 'This is my world, this is our world, come see us,' which was quite striking at that time. It's unusual to see that in galleries... It's very rare that the subjects are as present or as participatory."
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"Corset fantasy II. The Versailles Room." Photo: Courtesy of Susan Meiselas/Magnum Photos.
How have attitudes toward sex evolved over your career?
"When I was photographing the carnivals, there were a handful of managers, who owned shows, who traveled around the countryside, and they eventually...went out of business. People weren't interested. And why? Because they could see video sex shows, or go to lap clubs and have it live and even a little wilder, maybe."
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"Mistress Astrid's Smoking Session I, The Role Play Room." Photo: Courtesy of Susan Meiselas/Magnum Photos.
"There was Playboy magazine before 'Carnival Strippers' and there was burlesque before this work, but since then, there's been a progressive shifting to 'anything goes' — anything anyone can imagine. I've seen a few documentaries recently about young teenage girls in webcam sex work. Whether they're working independently or for someone else, you discover that there's a very elaborate network, and sex continues to sell."
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"Asphyxiation by boot, The Versailles Room." Photo: Courtesy of Susan Meiselas/Magnum Photos.
"I think that the questions remain the same: People will always ask how exploitative it is versus how much it's a means of income for women who have fewer economic choices. So some of those issues haven’t changed. It's just grown, I would say. It's expanded. Are sex workers feeding fantasy? Is sex work controlling and releasing fantasy in a productive, appropriate way?"
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"Client lounge." Photo: Courtesy of Susan Meiselas/Magnum Photos.
The line between sexualization and objectification continues to be controversial — where do you think it is?
"I don’t know. My generation of the '60s, '70s was so much more preoccupied about not making oneself an object, and focused on every choice about how you dressed, how you walked, or how you sat."
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"Mistress Brigitte between clients." Photo: Courtesy of Susan Meiselas/Magnum Photos.
"I'm pretty startled, at times, by the looseness and exposure that young women today are comfortable with. And it's very, very different. Is it provocative? You know Sex and the City — every summer, I've wanted to do a series called Skin and the City, because I'm just astounded by the degree of suggestive exposure of women that is in the public sector, including billboards and mannequins."
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"Mistress Natasha's Rules II, The Versailles Room." Photo: Courtesy of Susan Meiselas/Magnum Photos.
"I'm also working in Islamic countries, and it's quite different there, and I understand why exposing skin is antagonistic culturally. I'm very sensitive, myself, when I go into certain cultures, that I'm dressed appropriately to what they're comfortable with, not what I might choose. I want to assimilate to the extent that I can."
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"The Dungeon." Photo: Courtesy of Susan Meiselas/Magnum Photos.
What's next for you?
"I am [going] to work with a domestic violence clinic resource center that works with five or six different women's shelters in the U.K. And I'm going to be working collaboratively within that community to make something. I'm not sure yet what that will be."
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"Security TV 1." Photo: Courtesy of Susan Meiselas/Magnum Photos.
How do you choose your projects?
"I think I have to feel that, by doing some body of work, it's going to open up a dialogue; it's going to potentially expose a different perspective."
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"Mistress Crystal's Chariot." Photo: Courtesy of Susan Meiselas/Magnum Photos.
"Immersion is a big commitment, and how long you stay or how deep you go may vary, but I think choosing work comes from something that just draws me."
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"Mistress Solitaire's Punishment I, The Role Play Room." Photo: Courtesy of Susan Meiselas/Magnum Photos.
"It magnetically draws me in, and then there’s always the challenge: How much of myself can I give?"
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