Before You Judge Me, Know My Story
Before You Judge Me, Know My Story: Review by Joy Watson
‘Before You Judge Me, Know My Story’, is a participatory arts-based project, edited by Susann Huschke. The project entailed a collaboration with 14 sex workers and opened in Johannesburg in last week. ‘Before You Judge Me, Know My Story’ is an ethnographic study on the experiences, health practices and well-being of sex workers in Soweto. The sex workers involved in the project took pictures, created collages and wrote their stories, asking their audiences to listen to what they have to say about their lives, struggles and their reasons for selling sex. The stories and pictures give us a snapshot into the lives of these women, how they manage on a day-to-day basis, what is important to them and how they are claiming the writing of their own stories.
In the words of Chaniqua, a participant to the project, ‘We all want one thing, just to better ourselves and making ourselves be best we can be.’ This sentence sums it up really – the project is an unfolding of the stories of women who are trying to live the best kind of life that they can. Women who are working hard to live good lives and who take tremendous pride in what they have been able to provide and accomplish through their efforts.
Unsurprisingly, most of the stories of the women who participated are stories of unspeakable hardship and astute suffering, all brought about the socio-economic circumstances of structural oppression in South Africa. They illustrate how race, class and sex intersect to systemically disadvantage women.
Many of the women come from families who lived in conditions of abject poverty before taking it upon themselves to provide for themselves and their families. Some are mothers who juggle their work with their domestic responsibilities, making sure that their children have clean clothes for school, putting a meal on the table at night and helping their children with their homework. Others, like Penelope, became a sex worker when her mother lost her job. Her mother had been a cleaner and would put everything that she earned into transport costs to ensure that Penelope could get to and from school. Chantel became a sex worker because her mother was a domestic worker and could not afford to buy her the things that she wanted.
The thread binding the stories together is that most of the women use their earnings to support family and extended family, like caring for a grandparents who used to be domestic workers but are no longer able to work.
Some came into sex work after encountering traumatic loss in their lives. Chastiti says. ‘I was married and had two beautiful girls. Then they passed on. Then that’s where my life turns around cause I was devastated, destroyed and crushed and broken cause I felt that everything that I valued and loved was taken from me.’ Benefit, says “Death came to my house taking all the people I loved and who were supporting me financially and otherwise….. I had to come up with a plan and very fast, to survive the situation.’
The project explores different ways of being a woman – it captures the stories of those born as women and those who came to identify as women, bringing to the fore some of the specific experiences of trans women, but also illustrating how all these women live ordinary lives and the tremendous tenacity of their spirit in rising above hardship.
“Before You Judge Me, Know My Story’ is pulled together in a manner that is deeply sensitive to giving the participants agency and allowing them to craft the lens through which we see them. The stories told are brutal, honest and haunting. They are stories about the human spirit, what it means to live through difficulty and to claim the power to engineer your own path. The pictures are an alluring visual accompaniment, giving us a glimpse into the lives of the women. When engaging with the material, I found myself deeply touched by these stories of beauty and resilience. I was lulled into the stories in ways that made me enter into the world of the women on their terms, hearing their words, seeing their pictures. Which is exactly as it should be.