“I feel (in)vulnerable now” — Amber Dawn on Reclaiming Her Identity
By Monica Rose
Amber Dawn is a writer, artist and documentarian whose latest work gives intimate insight into a world very few people experience. Being a sex worker myself, I was excited to have the chance to interview an artist who has also had first-hand experience in this underground industry. Someone who is unapologetically ‘out’ about their (former) profession and looking to share their experiences—regardless of societal stigma—spoke volumes to me. The phone conversation that I shared with Amber was both invigorating and enlightening, and her work promises to be nothing less.
How has working in the industry shaped your art?
It’s made me think a lot about the beauty found in truth. I really believe that the more honest I get with myself, the more beautiful my message becomes, and I think that's because it speaks to the deep humanity. Working in the industry has also really made me think about how I assume the roles of certain archetypes at certain times; how sometimes I enjoy playing with them and sometimes I want to reject them.
What was the driving force to get started with this project?
It started with me as a documentarian just trying to document this portion of my experience that has taken different forms for multiple years. This certain time of my life, I had some trauma happen, and I was working and just wanted to make sure I was on a good track. So I started taking selfies as a way to document myself in these experiences. I would take a selfie before after I saw a client, and now have this body of work with over 1,800 pieces of visual data. I think because of the density of the data you're able to cut through it to a truth; it's not just me selecting the finest pieces, it’s offering everything to people, an opportunity to see the complexity of the experience.
So it started with selfies, and my idea at one point was just to give people ‘before and afters’ only, and maybe a mirror to see what story they put in between. I would show my friends and my close loved ones, and they all had a different impression, which I found fascinating. So everything has kind of developed from there. I realised that I couldn't just distil the experience down to ‘before and afters;’, that really this is an opportunity for healing and for dense rich conversation about the complexity and nuances of the profession and just where we're at culturally in terms of acceptance.
Do you have a process to your art?
I'm a firm believer that the process of creation is the creation. Everything that I do has to have some sort of poetic resonance with what I’m exploring. Because I’m working with selfies, because I’m working through Instagram, a lot of it is what are we reflecting, what are we projecting onto each other and from each other—at what point does this hall of mirrors end and where do we begin? So my medium started to reflect that. Through this process I started to realise that human qualities are really part of a performance ceremony, and I would also say that my reclamation of this is part of my true identity.
Some sex workers are medicine people, and I see myself as one of those; in my process of reclaiming this identity and being okay with it, I started to look at my feminist upbringing that I had resisted for many years. In the process of reclaiming even that identity, I started my non-profit women's art collective where I became a part of a larger women's body. I was always very scared to do [that] because of the shaming that that we go through claiming who we are; the fear of not being the most beautiful girl in the room, the scarcity mentality that we're taught. I was scared to claim those things because I didn't want to be a drop in the bucket, and then I realized that we’re the ocean.
There is just so much force when we are all together—I’ve given myself an opportunity to be part of an ocean by encouraging participation with other women. I believe that sex workers go through that all the time; we’re put against each other in this competitive industry. My process has been to make sure that everything in my life resonates with this thing that I'm working through.
What made you want to share your experience and be more open about it? Particularly when you're talking about stigma and the things that we hold ourselves to; what was it that helped you get away from that?
I've never really told my story; I've always generally helped other people tell theirs and I just needed to claim my own. I think every artist goes through this—we're constantly trying to legitimize ourselves as artists. I wasn't going to have this experience go to waste, and I knew that I had the strength to deal with whatever repercussions came. But because of the liberation that I've experienced through outing myself, I feel invulnerable now. It's given me the strength to support other people and so there's really nothing anyone could do that will hurt at this point. The art project itself is about people finding themselves in the story. If people have a deep criticism, I know that it's coming from inside of themselves.
It's been a healing practice for me, and I think I can now stand firmly and confidently in my experiences and say the things that I'm saying because I’m grounded in them. In that way, I didn't even know if I could consider myself an artist or a sex worker. I don't know if I was very good at either. But now through this process I can say that those are truths in many ways, and part of the project is to remind us of the projections and reflections of ourselves.
If there was one thing that you really wanted someone to take away from this body of work, what would it be? What do you hope comes across?
I hope is that we see ourselves in each other more often. My highest aspiration is that our hearts soften rather than harden when it comes to looking at parts of ourselves that make us feel uncomfortable. But this is also about sex, I hope people get aroused and maybe uncomfortable in their arousal and reflect on that; who knows!
Amber Dawn’s work can be seen on her website, and you can also follow her on instagram, @dahlia_duende and @wolflabmtl
*This conversation was edited and condensed for clarity*