PurrVerse: Behind The Lens With Sex Worker Photographer Isabel Dresler

Recently I got a chance to meet Isabel Dresler (safe for work), who I’ve taken to calling “photographer to queer porn stars.” She’s shot with some queer porn faves like Courtney Trouble, Dylan Ryan, Andre Shakti, and Siouxsie Q. We got to chatting at a shoot for the cover of the East Bay Express on the local porn scene, where Betty Blac, Jolene Parton and I helped fulfill her desire to have a photo taken while she was being smothered by breasts.

There’s an interesting combination of intimacy and high fashion that manifests under her gaze. I was curious to ask her a bit more about it, as well as why she decided to focus attention on marketing photos for sex workers. I liked how she called herself more of a scientist than an artistic photographer, investing her time in the study of her subject (which could be anything from insects to fancy homes). Everyone seems to be obsessed about the sex part of sex work, but it’s still work. As such, middle class indoor sex work often requires some practical and related investments: a decent website, a second phone, and, of course, some excellent photos.

Here’s my conversation with Dresler, after the jump:

The Frisky: You have a very specific eye. Many of your photos of sex workers would be equally at home in a gallery as on an escort site. How did you get into photography in the beginning? What about it speaks to you?

Isabel Dresler: Lessee here… I got into photography very early in life. When I was six or seven, my parents used to buy me disposable film cameras and I used to take my stuffed animals out into the park and do mini-photoshoots. I also read a ton of National Geographic magazines and always dreamed of someday being a photographer for them. I started selling little greeting cards with photos of flowers on them to all my neighbors, and then I got my first real job working in a portrait studio in the local mall. Which, albeit a traumatic and terrifying and pee-filled experience, definitely helped shape my work into what it is today — I prefer to work exclusively with natural light rather than incorporate the complications of studio lighting into my shoots (because studio lighting reminds me of babies throwing up). Then after another portrait studio stint I started to get into product photography, which I love, and I spent the next several years doing that up until I decided I’d rather photograph pretty people than sexy faucets. However, the sexy faucets will always have my heart.

Recreationally I have been photographing insects almost since I began taking pictures a bajillion years ago, and I also love playing with Polaroid cameras. I have a borderline hoarder status amount of Polaroid prints all over my house (and my car, and at other people’s houses, and randomly stuffed into purses and such) because I’ve gotten into the habit of taking Polaroids wherever I’m adventuring. I also enjoy shooting fetish photography and queer porn for shits and giggles, and I’ve been getting into the realm of video as of late as well. Sooner rather than later I’m hoping to expand my offerings to sex workers to include promotional videos, and not just photos.

I’m a very visual person, so I suppose photography appeals for my need to explain things to people without using my words, because I’m not a huge fan of using my words. And I love trying to replicate a permanent version of how I’m seeing something in that moment. I’m super nearsighted, so I tend to shoot with a super short depth of field, which emulates my being hella blind.

I saw you have an updated section of your site speaking to performers and providers. I really liked how you speak to us, actually, which is why I’m excited to work with you! What made you decide to specialize in photographs for sex workers?

 About four years ago I was at this fetish party/video shoot in San Francisco (because I’m kinda fetishy and used to like parties) and I saw this super cute girl who was watching me get zapped in the butt with a cattle prod (because, fetishy) and she approached me to tell me what a badass I was and I was all like “I think this might sound creepy, but I’d love to take your photo sometime.” And surprisingly she said “yes.” I came down to the Bay again about a month later and did a shoot with her, and she had such a nice time that she referred all her friends to me.

Because this industry is so heavily driven by referrals, I ended up building more and more of a client base of porn performers and providers who wanted good promotional photos but didn’t want to either a) go to a vanilla mainstream photographer who doesn’t quite grasp the concept of what they were looking for, or b) pervy dude with a camera who offers to photograph them for free but then midway through the shoot starts asking them to verbally humiliate him and his tiny man-parts (true story).

As I was also a sex worker at the time, I had the luxury of being able to take my own photos (AKA why I am so bomb at selfies now) but I kept hearing horror stories from my friends and clients and decided stop doing sex work and start photographing sex workers exclusively. Because nobody should have to be made even more uncomfortable in a situation where they are already super vulnerable and essentially at the mercy of someone else who, a lot of the time, is not particularly professional and doesn’t have the skillset that we all deserve to have for our photos. Plus, with my background in product/marketing photography and the fact that I’m actually a huge creepy introvert, I’m able to see my clients less as sexual beings and more as a brand that needs to be marketed to a certain clientele.

I see a lot of offers for boudoir photo shoots on Groupon and other sites. Why is it important to get these photos taken by someone who’s sex worker friendly? Why not go to one of them?

For me, boudoir photography and photography for sex workers are two completely different animals. Although both types are centered around making you feel beautiful and sexy and like the tasty minx you are, photography for sex workers has a second facet to it — you don’t just need sexy photos, you need sexy photos that can appropriately market you to an audience. These are photos for everyone to see, not just photos for you to give to your partner or hide under your mattress for 10 years.

I worry sometimes that I come off as overly objectifying. But when it comes down to brass tacks your body and your look and how you present yourself IS your business and your brand and your product. If you were shopping online for a lamp, would you want a photo of it just sitting by a bed? Or would you want a series of photos highlighting all the various amazing assets of the lamp that makes you go “DAMN, I want that lamp”? Basically, you need more than just a photo of you sitting by a bed. You need photos that shows YOU, and makes people want to buy YOU. Or book you for pornos. Or whatever. You get the gist.

The other issue at hand is the fact that photographers who aren’t sex-worker friendly (or even just not particularly educated on the issues that sex workers have to deal with) can intentionally or unintentionally make the photo session reeeeeally awkward. It’s hard to tell someone “Hey, I need photos of my feet in super scary boots because I do a lot of trampling sessions” and have them be, like, “Oh, well why don’t we just take photos of you wearing the super scary boots?” and refuse to take photos of your feet, or fail to understand why anyone would need foot pictures. There’s also a risk of booking a photo session with someone and then halfway through the shoot have them find out you’re a Slutty McSlut and have them get super awkward or even stop the shoot and refuse to work with you. I don’t know why photographers do that, but it happens.

Oh, or they’ll find out and think that’s an open invitation for them to be pervy dicks and try to get handsy or make the sex with you. Which is gross.

Yeah, I can’t imagine getting photos taken of my pets or when selling my house and the photographer suddenly getting grabby with me. But then that’s often true with service providers. If they know I’m a sex worker they get a lot more flirty and forward, which is why I’m learning how to fix my own plumbing. What else is different about escort photographs versus other types of photography, like, I dunno, weddings or portraits?

Well, I have photographed weddings for escorts, and done normal portraits for escorts as well. But those are much less marketing-centric because they’re preserving the moment special just for you and people that already know they want to perv all over the photos — not the unsuspecting potential clients that you have to lure in with ads and promotional photos.

Hah! I dunno. My bitter harridan side would say that wedding photos are too often treated like promo for “marriage” as a concept. Anyway. Would you consider yourself an artist, or a product photographer?

This is a hard question. I’ve never really identified as an artist because even recreationally I prefer the idea of documenting subjects and experiences for later referral than creating “AHHHRT”. Sometimes my photos end up looking artsy though, which is rad. As much as I don’t like the idea of being super objectifying, I definitely tend to have more of a product photographer mindset during all of my shoots. But that’s nice for everyone, especially my clients, because it’s super easy for me to say “no, squish your boobs THIS way and not THAT way because it makes your nipples look cuter” or “angle your butt this way because otherwise your lady bits are doing weird things” without sounding like a giant creep.

Can you give us an idea of what it’s like to be on set photographing sex workers? Your models seem to be so comfortable and having a great time!

It’s fantastic and wonderful and I love it. My goal in all this is to work harder to humanize the sex industry, and being able to meet so many awesome providers and performers and spend hours with them building a relationship and learning all about their lives is more rewarding than any other kind of work I’ve done. I have worked with part-time preschool teachers, porn performers with their Masters degree in pure mathematics, competitive equestrians, wives, mothers, and all sorts of people that society would never suspect of being sex workers. I also always feel incredibly special that I get to have all of these lovely people strip down and bare their souls and skin and vulnerability to me, to trust me, and in return to be able to provide them not just with super sweet and useful images of themselves, but a renewed sense of self value and gratification. I really just like making people feel special and pretty, and a lot of the time sex workers need that validation the most. We spend so much time validating the needs of our clients or audience or whomever that we forget that the most important, deserving, special beautiful person is us.

There must be things that make you laugh during these shoots sometimes. Any funny stories to tell from your experience?

I shoot with a 28mm lens most of the time, which alters my depth perception quite a bit as I tend to keep my camera glued to my face for the majority of each shoot. Running into boobs on accident isn’t too terrible (although it’s still awkward when it happens) but right in the middle of a shoot I was doing for a dominatrix where she was piercing the shaft of her submissive’s penis with needles and I was trying to get a nice, intimate close up (like you do), I kinda accidentally bopped him in the testicles with my lens. Luckily he was too preoccupied with the needles in his man parts to really care too much.

I’m also really bad at verbally posing my clients, so I’ve taken to doing a combination of pictionary meets interpretive dance in order to explain what I need. I hear that’s pretty funny to watch as well.

So, here’s the question I kind of have to ask as a feminist and a sex worker who gets this question ALL the time: what’s your relationship to feminism?

I’ve been a queer little nature-loving, progressive feminist since I can remember (like seriously, I can’t remember when it started). Growing up in one of the most conservative counties in California made it really difficult for me to express my views without some pretty nasty backlash from kids in my school, my fellow photographers, or the everyday citizens in my town. In order to get jobs in my town I’ve had to dress, speak and act more effeminately than I was comfortable with, deal with hefty amounts of sexual harassment (especially after I was outed as a sex worker by an ex) and generally figure out how to blend in. I struggled with my appearance, gender image and my social situation for a long time. But as I’ve begun to find my niche I’m much more comfortable with not just expressing my own values and ideas about feminism, women’s equality, sexuality, gay rights and sex worker humanization, but educating other people in my city as well.

I occasionally still get called out as a bra-burning feminazi by random dudes in bars and coffee shops, but hey, who hasn’t sacrificed the occasional bra to the fire goddesses in homage to the wonder of womanhood before?

Who indeed? I can only wonder as I finger my “misandry” necklace. Thanks for the interview and the insight, Isabel!

The curious can check out Isabel’s site (sex workers can look here especially), follow her on Twitter, or keep up with her on her blog.