Photographer Jonnie Andersen was working as a bartender in downtown Las Vegas when the idea to take photographs of the city's sex workers came to her. It was 2005, and she had just witnessed a prostitute get brutally beaten by another woman out in front of the bar.
"She just accepted it," Andersen explained. "And at the end, [she] stood up, brushed herself off, and came back to her seat to finish her shot. I asked her why she didn't fight back. 'Slept with her man,' she told me, 'I knew this was coming.'"
This interaction instantly intrigued Andersen, and she knew she needed to meet more of Vegas' sex workers, get to know them, and, in the way that she photographed them, provide them with a fantastical break from their everyday lives.
Andersen said that she spent hours decorating her set, a room in the hotel across the street from the bar where she worked, with props and costumes she found in nearby thrift shops:
"I think I wanted to just make it as ridiculous as possible. I never thought of this as 'art with a capital A' but an escape — for myself, for the people who helped with the project, for the women we photographed. I felt like playing with the tropes of the way prostitutes are often depicted. I just wanted to throw out all that sadness and respond instead to our joined sense of humor and the ridiculous."
Her photos reflect this goal — to keep the tone of the shoot light. The women appear wearing top hats and brightly colored wigs, posing with feathery fans and in front of a metallic Christmas tree.
"Before long, women were continually showing up at the bar to ask that they be included, photographed," Andersen said. "I felt like they loved this time of being seen, just sitting around talking, putting on outfits and makeup."
Andersen ended her project with the sex workers in 2008, again due to a jarring run-in with a prostitute:
"I found one of the women gang-raped, green bruised across the face, with cigarette burns. I'd...felt I'd made some kind of difference, even feeling like a friend to women whose pimps didn't allow such associations or friendships, but finding her changed something. I felt like photography had potentially been a farce in light of the things they faced; I felt soured, angry, hurt, and I was unable to photograph for several years in any meaningful way."
Despite the project's abrupt, upsetting conclusion, the photos remain a source of whimsy. Andersen's scenes are bright and campy, and her subjects appear totally at ease. She created a safe space for these women, completely free of judgment.
"We all wish to be seen, to be cherished, to be loved for ourselves," Andersen said, "because of and not in spite of our incredible flaws."
Click through to view a selection of Andersen's work.