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|| News Item: Posted 2009-11-09

Cool Gig: Photographer Gains Trust For Project at a Local Cabaret
By Jason Franson, Edmonton Sun

Photo by Jason Franson / Sun Media

Photo by Jason Franson / Sun Media

Dancer Mulisha prepares for her night of work to begin while backstage at Chez Pierre Cabaret.
One of the best things about working at a newspaper is the constant surprise. For instance when I woke up for my regular day shift in February of 2009, I had no idea I would end my night in a strip club. I also had no idea how happy I'd be about it.

Sure, I've been to a few bachelor parties, but my tastes tend to favour the local pub over the skin shows. Becoming comfortable with strangers was one of my early career challenges, but I've never been pushed as far out of my comfort zone as I was at Chez Pierre, a long-standing Edmonton peeler bar.

Originally, I was sent there on assignment for the newspaper. It was supposed to be a recession story with a sexy twist - about how desperate women were turning to stripping as a last resort in tough economic times. It didn't turn out to be any of those things.

Story or no story, what I saw when I walked into Chez excited me, and it had nothing to do with the dancers.

The small nude dance club was the first of its kind in Edmonton when it opened in 1970 and the antiquated d├ęcor definitely pays homage to the decade of its inception. The club looks like an eclectic retro sex palace married to a 1940s underground burlesque hall. Life-sized figures of women carved of white marble flank a small black and white checkered stage. Another era's naked women wink and smile from cardboard cutouts on the walls, inexplicably partnered with Elvis artwork. The main area of the club is sparsely furnished with tables and colored lamps. A flimsy velvet curtain is the only separation between mystique of stage, and the backroom where the dancers prepare for their routines.

My interest in the venue and the people who kept it alive deepened after talking with the owner. His father, who had been a Belgian boxer and an underground fighter against the Germans in World War II, had started the club after immigrating to Canada.

It was the first Edmonton club to let women perform topless, and later became the first to go bottomless in the conservative capital of a prairie province. Its opening was marked by citizen protests, repeated police raids and ongoing hang-ups over permits issued from City Hall. The club persevered however, prospered, and eventually passed quietly out of the limelight.

After hearing the history, I couldn't walk away without asking if I could come back. I explained in detail how I wanted to show the people that make the place so unique. I told the owner how I wanted the piece to be raw, real and honest. I expected to be laughed out the door, but I was given total access, dependent of course on approval from my subjects. Therein came the hard part. Most people who frequent or work at strip clubs tend to value their anonyminity. What luck would I have convincing them to be photographed getting or giving a lap dance?

Photo by Jason Franson / Sun Media

Photo by Jason Franson / Sun Media

Eve waits in the light for customers on a slow night at the club.
My first couple of nights there, I was as anxious as a sober teenager visiting a strip club for the first time. I nervously walked around the place with my borrowed Canon 5D, introduced myself to the floor manager, the servers and the dancers. I explained why I was haunting the club with a camera and made it clear I wasn't there to ambush anyone. I told them that if someone didn't want to be photographed, I wouldn't shoot them. I also told them I could shoot to protect identity if need be. I made a couple of frames in those early visits, but spent most of my time asking and answering questions.

At first about half the staff agreed to being photographed. Two didn't want their faces shown, and a few others wanted nothing to do with me. But after eight or so trips to the club, almost everyone warmed up to me.

One dancer told me I was her "kind of white boy." Another offered couples therapy delivered through lap dances. Over time, I became a sort of confidant for money problems, unexpected pregnancy, relationship crises and business concerns.

The more they saw me and the more we talked, the more access I was given. I showed them the photos I had been shooting and helped them understand how I was approaching the project. It took patience, but I was able to build trust with the staff - without which this project would not have been possible.

Clients on the other hand never seemed to frequent the club regularly enough to get comfortable with me, so I can understand their bizarre, startled expressions when approached by a photographer when they thought they were safely invisible in the dark. I offered them the same explanations I gave staff about not photographing anyone uncomfortable with my project. Expectedly, some replied with definitive "don't you dare take a photo of me" comments, but others customers surprised me with their enthusiasm and openness.

As I continue to work on this project, I try to channel that enthusiasm into my ongoing introductions. Faces at the club are constantly changing as girls are fired or leave for other jobs. My day job keeps me away from Chez Pierre's more than I would like, so every time I return I'm uncertain of how many new people I'm going to have to explain myself to.

Photo by Jason Franson / Sun Media

Photo by Jason Franson / Sun Media

Dancer Dani performs on stage for customers at Chez Pierre Cabaret.
A valuable lesson I've learned is respect is the key to gaining trust. Most people want to tell their story but no one wants to be portrayed in a bad light. In my experience, by the time people show up at Chez Pierre's in the evening, they've had their daily dose of judgment and aren't looking for more. Keeping this in mind keeps me focused on what I actually see without getting sidetracked by sensationalized stereotypes.

The shooting itself is very challenging as well. It is so dark that everything is in the 1000 to 1600 ISO range from a 1/6 of a second to a 1/30 of a second. The mixed sources and colors of light present problems too. It's a small venue and I've really had to push myself to look for less obvious vantage points so I'm not repeatedly shooting the same photos.

Ultimately my experience on this personal project has been rewarding. I have learned to push my own boundaries, show more tolerance and objectivity, and developed my skills shooting in extremely low-light conditions, cramped quarters, and in a place where many people might bristle at the presence of a photographer.

There are more stories to be told at Chez Pierre's Cabaret and I will be there to tell them because I was lucky enough to be welcomed in. Glimpsing into peoples' lives is part of the job we all do as photographers, and we must never forget to embrace those moments with an open mind and understanding.

And for the record - even though it's sold as part of "the full experience" at Chez Pierre's - I don't plan to take up any offers for free lap dances.

(Jason Franson is on staff at the Edmonton Sun. You can see images from his project shot at the Chez Pierre: . You can see other samples of his work at his member page:

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