myriam meloni – important things are said softly

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Myriam Meloni

Important Things Are Said Softly

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I met Leila a few months ago and the first thing I learned about her is that she was 23 years old and she was working as a prostitute.

She has two children to support. I went into her daily life and I found a strong woman, careful with her context, stubborn, generous and in fact, quite romantic.

I also witnessed her loneliness and frustration. I was wondering how she feels every time she gets undressed in front of a stranger, and what she dreams of, when I hear her humming a romantic melody.

Months went by and now I know that Leila is actually called Yesica and she is a single mother of two lively children. She strives to support her family, paying on her own skin the price of prostitution. With love and with power, she guarantees them the most important of all securities, affection, on which human chances of being happy strongly depend.

The family, as a primitive social core, has been changing and taking new shapes: the traditional concept of family has rapidly expanded to include, among others, the single-parent families, the blended families or the families made up by people of the same sex.

In “Important Things Are Said Softly,” I decided to tell the story of a mother and her two children: three individuals who live together, make reproaches, say “I love you!”, take care of each other, play, fight and grow, discovering together, day after day, what it means to be a family.

Today, about 16% of the children worldwide live in a single parent household and in 75% of the cases, they are accompanied only by the mother. Lately, in the last fifty years, families have experienced unimaginable changes, linked with the evolution of a way of thinking and also with the new forms of capitalist production as well as a new distribution of roles between men and women. However, the social imaginary keeps clinging to the classic family type, leaving the door open to the stigmatization of those who live in a different reality.

In these times of change, it is crucial to understand that the family is an active element that never remains stationary. It moves from one form to another as the society evolves.

The characteristics it takes on are endless…



Myriam Meloni (b.1980) is an Italian documentary photographer based in Argentina. She is a Law in penitentiary law from the University of Bologna. In 2004 she moved to Barcelona where she alternated her job as a criminologist at the “Modelo” jail, with her work as photographer in several Spanish magazines.

In 2010 she was nominated for the Joop Swart Mastarclass, and selected to participate at Transatlantica Photoespaña.
Her work has been exhibited in Italy, Spain, Poland, Argentina, Peru and Brazil and has been featured in many international magazines.
 She is currently combining her freelance career, working for newspapers and NGOs, with her personal projects.


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73 Responses to “myriam meloni – important things are said softly”

  • Some really nice images throughout this essay, especially the images of Leila’s two little kids. There’s nothing like a woman photographer to gain that extra little trust needed to get that close. Wishing as usual the essay was slightly longer, just as I was starting to really feel things it all came to a sudden end.
    Maybe times are changing, I’ve got two of my best friends and my brother in law who are all single parent fathers. Then I’ve got my sons at school and now they are the odd ones in class, most of the other kids parents are separated or divorced. However I do wonder as I stop to think about it perhaps things aren’t so different at least for me as I also was brought up in a single parent household. Perhaps it’s just that these days at last don’t give a shit what the neighbors think.

  • It seems as if there are a few stories within this essay…
    As a single mom, I know that story well..
    and it is not for the faint of heart..
    Like Paul, I was starting to feel things when it ended..
    especially with the last 2 photos,
    those 2 images told me a story……
    beautiful portraits of her children…
    she is lucky to have those….

  • Many a time it’s the kids who “save” a single parent from all the hardships being alone entail. I hope these two little kids somehow inspire her mum to pull out of that awful world Leila endures.

  • Exploiting the exploited.

  • “Dignity” is one word that comes to my mind looking at this essay.. thank you, Myriam and, most of all, Yesica.

  • eva
    August 4, 2012 at 6:13 pm
    “Dignity” is one word that comes to my mind looking at this essay.. thank you, Myriam and, most of all, Yesica.

    Eva thank you…i absolutely agree with your statement….nothing to add except CONGRATULATIONS!

  • Number 9 is quite nice. Cant really see the point of any of the others. And I certainly cant see the point of putting this womans occupation into the public domain alongside pictures of her children.
    Who does that serve exactly?


  • “Exploiting the exploited.”

    In a country like Australia this would lead to a visit from then Child Protection Authorities both the mother and photographer would have a few questions to answer. I am sure that Australia does not stand alone in this.

  • I don’t see, why Child Protection Autorities should visit and ask questions. I have seen many homes like that, with single parents and even with married parents. There are times, there are moments when live becomes overwhelming. The profession adds a layer to the phantasy, but finally has nothing to do with it.
    It is, however, important that the parent loves their children. This is visible in the pictures.
    Even more, it is visible how much the children care for their mother.

    This time I missed captions, but on the other side, it left room to create a description of my own.

    Well done, and Eva nailed it: Dignity.

    Thank you very much.

  • Thomas but the images are not usually plastered over the net. To them it is not about whether love is visible in the images. I personally would not place myself in the photographers position.

  • Exploiting the exploited, Jim? Get in line. And you might as well drop your pants and bend over while you wait.

    My biggest worry is that the kids’ classmates will find those photos. Just imagine the pain they would suffer. That and the little girl playing in the refrigerator. Horrible way to die. Hopefully the photographer wasn’t practicing journalistic detachment and at least tried to educate the family in that matter.

    Well-realized pics of the kids though. Five is the classic Gene Smith shot vibe. Two is just plain fucking weird in context.

  • Michael, there is simply no good reason to expose a 23 year old prostitute and her minor children in such a public way. That the woman would consent to such exposure at the very least calls her judgement into question. That the photographer would include the children is, IMHO, inexcusable.

  • Jim Powers…

    I don’t believe every photo essay of the exploited and under privileged should be out to find a solution or simply save them. What about a chance to simply record visually who Leila and her kids were, so perhaps in maybe three years, who knows eight years or what the hell twenty years time someone comes along with somehow more drive than Miriam and is inspired by the essay to really do something to change all the Leila’s and their kids in the world.
    Or perhaps I’m wrong and maybe no one should attempt to work on an essay of the exploited unless they pull all the stops and really make a difference not only in their personal portfolio but also in their subjects life. It does seem somehow every documentary photographer does go through at some point a “I must save the world” syndrome with their images. A bit like every heavy metal or rock song has to and always has a guitar solo, even though it’s a crappy or highly uninspired guitar solo – the song must have one.

  • Jim, I’m not saying I disagree with your premise. But railing at photographers documenting the lives of the poor and downtrodden is akin to tilting at windmills. And on rare occasions, some good comes of it.

    I was in a terribly cynical mood when I wrote that comment. Just finished reading about a billionaire who had purchased three islands and apparently had them terraformed to spell out his initials. He had written an op-ed in the Washington Post about how it was okay for the super wealthy to do unethical things as long as it helps further excellence (okay, I’m paraphrasing wildly, but that was the gist, imo). Turns out he had gotten a basic and easily researched fact wrong that totally destroyed his argument. For too many billionaires, things like excellence, fact checking and accountability are for the Leila’s of the world. For the thee’s and not the mee’s. More and more it’s approaching near impossible to photograph someone who’s not being exploited.

  • I find some of the comments quite judgmental..

  • Dears all, I found very interesting all the viewpoints expressed here.
    When I decided to work on the history of Yesica, I went into a complex universe made ​​of many contradictions, as often happens in life.
    Gradually, I felt that prostitution was only a part of their reality, and the important thing was that despite all (economic difficulties, instability in the neighborhood where they lived, and the absence of a father) there was between them a great union, protection and love.
    If the Child Protection Authorities will knocking one day at her door, I would like to think that would be to propose a better solution and some support, not to judge what she does with her ​​image.
    When one day I spoke with Yesica of the possibility that her children saw these pictures, she said “they will have no doubt that everything I did was for their sakes” And I understand many things.

    And of course … the fridge was broken and disconnected!

  • is being a prostitute a dirty little secret?
    should it be?
    Yesica is taking care of her children..
    providing for them….
    I suppose that is why I saw a few stories in this essay….
    but ultimately its about a woman doing what she needs to do to care for her children…
    why is prostitution, if a woman choses that profession, dirty and shameful?!?!?
    The prostitutes I have met, have been smart, business savvy, and know EXACTLY what they are doing….
    I do feel however, that mixing her profession with her family life is tricky…
    and perhaps her life as a prostitute is a completely different story…..

  • Wonderful work.
    Exploitive?, good grief! (to quote Jim from a past post.) People seem to shout “exploitation” every time there are photographs of any downtrodden person. I guess we should all put our cameras away and just take them out to record birthdays, Christmas, and sunsets.

    This is tender, human, and sensitive. Bravo Myriam!

  • What I see is a slice of life I would not have imagined from a woman whose indispensible profession is typically demonized, glorified, vilified, pitied, despised or romanticized, often vigorously attacked in public by those who utilize it in private (ie: Eliot Spitzer) – but very seldom presented from the context of a real human being, a mother who lcves her children, and has willfully chosen this as a means of supporting them in challenging circumstance.

    In this way, Miriam Meloni has broadened my understanding of this world by giving me a glimpse of something I had neither previously seen nor contemplated.

    I agree with Eva and her use of the word, “dignity.”

    Yet, I also find myself feeling fear for what the children, who were not in a position to truly make an informed decision to participate in such a potentially dangerous project or not, will experience should this essay be seen by even one of their peers – a prospect that seems highly likely. As they say, what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger, so maybe it will make them stronger – but maybe not.

    I have benefited by viewing this essay. My understanding of this world has been enhanced. I believe this essay has the potential to benefit society. Does my benefit, society’s benefit, come at the cost of the children’s detriment? If so, is the benfit worth the cost? I don’t know.

    As unlikely as it seems, I would like to read a follow-up report from these children in about 20 years.

  • Wendy. As far as I can work out the only references to ‘dirty”secret’ and ‘shameful’ have been made in your post. So, not sure where thats aimed at.
    I also think that most people here are enlightened enough not to be judgemental about this as a profession of need or choice. The concern I see mentioned, and that I mentioned myself, is of putting this information into the public domain. There are possible ramifications to this and i am not convinced yet that a photo essay best serves the interests of the families, the participants, or moves the debate on in a meaningful way.

  • “I find some of the comments quite judgmental..” so are yours Eva and this is one of thwm

  • All the pearl clutching and need of a fainting couch notwithstanding, this is an intense and serious essay/story. Impressive photography.

  • Beautiful story. Filled with such beautiful images. I feel a great respect from the photographer to the characters of the story.

    And I think this is the kind of stories we have to support, at least showcasing them, giving them different kinds of broadcasting. All the different questions that raise to all of us after seeing the pictures, not only about prostitution, but also about the composition and vulnerability of the families, and also about our role as photographers, are just some of the great number of positive consequences of looking at these intimate stories.

    Agreeing very much with Frostfrog, undoubtedly this work contributes to understand one side of the world. This is a lot.

    And we as photographers sometimes tend to look only for punctual problems and conflicts in the stories, underestimating all the complexity that we can explore with photography. I like very much when in these personal and intimate works a photographer explores different sides of the situation: this is a very responsible way of working. Very happy of seeing this story here.

  • johnny G
    I made those references after reading peoples comments, and having thoughts of my own. Is it shameful and dirty? Is that why I’m reacting like this? I felt uncomfortable seeing her children in relation to her profession, which surprised me.. I too, have been working with prostitutes, and like this story, they send money to their children. One common voice they all expressed to me, was that they didn’t like how they couldn’t say with confidence to the ‘public’ what they do.. Its like Myriam said, ‘a complex universe with many contradictions…’ Here in the US, legal prostitutes are independent contractors.. The ones I’ve met are smart and know how to play the game and make $$.. Its that simple.. I think thats why Leila has agreed to do this.. She is simply making money to support her family.. ** So then why does it make me feel uncomfortable??? I continue to wonder…. ** :)

  • As for the kids well kids are a resilient lot it is as they get older that the fragility bears its ugly head

  • The choices we make change us in fundamental ways. They change our world view, they change our relationship to others, changes that echo through the rest our lives. More importantly, they change the people that love us and depend on us. “My mother is a prostitute” and “my mother is an investment banker” are not just statements of fact, but signposts pointing toward my future. To be a “strong woman” (or man, for that matter) only has meaning within context.

    “My mother is a prostitute” and “my mother is an investment banker,” certainly send a child a different message in places where prostitution is illegal.

    These photos could potentially destroy the family. It still seems to me that the decisions by the mother and the photographer to put these photos in the public sphere were bad decisions.

  • I worked on a story in college about a professor who got busted for moonlighting as a pimp. The hook was that he trolled the welfare office and enticed women getting food stamps to work for him. I thought that was as clear a connection between prostitution and poverty one would ever see. I looked for research to support such a connection, even worked with the Kinsey Institute (interesting library), but could find no statistical link between prostitution and poverty. Of course there are some women who are driven to prostitution by poverty, but apparently it is not the norm. I was able to track down and interview two of the professor’s prostitutes. Basically, they told me they liked to party and it sure beat working long hours at a shitty job.

    That explanation makes sense to me, and in cases like that, I am nonjudgmental. Nonjudgmental with strangers, that is. Prostitution is a case where there are other levels of negative judgements. Sure, the Jesus character in the Bible let a prostitute wash his feet. That far, I would go. But I wouldn’t, for example, want my children to become prostitutes, nor would I be comfortable with the idea of them marrying one. Is that the kind of prejudice an enlightened person should overcome? Perhaps, but it’s not gonna happen. And of course not all prostitutes are freely making their own choices. Many are abused. Many have been enslaved. Is it okay to be negatively judgmental about sex slavery?

    Anyway — and here I’m talking general principles, not making a judgment on whether this particular story should have been done — the act of getting the subject’s permission doesn’t absolve a photographer from any moral responsibility for his or her editorial decisions. Ultimately, those are separate issues. How does one weigh the cost/benefits? Is the enlightenment of many worth some serious pain for a few? Perhaps, but in moral dilemmas such as these, I always think back to a line from an old song by the Waitresses: “I don’t wanna be a part of some rich kid’s learning experience.” Unfortunately, being a part of some rich kid’s learning experience sums up too much of our relationship with the poor and downtrodden in this world.

  • These photos could potentially destroy the family.

    Right. It’s not the crushing poverty or the lack of opportunities or being pushed to the margins of society… no, it’s the photos that will destroy the family. If only she could have become an investment banker.

    I’m getting the impression that some are mostly angry at the photographer for daring to show us a life we’d rather not see.

  • I doubt if anyone is angry at the photographer nor are they seeing something that they are not aware of. I am sure some of us live, or have lived amidst similiar situations in our own communities. Most are just pointing out possible raminifications. Maybe that is where the problem lies, a situation like the one portrayed is socially unaccepted in the so called western world but part of societies’fabric elsewhere.

    This is no different to an essay where the parents are growing opium, processing it and selling due to it being their only avenue of making a living.

  • “nor are they seeing something that they are not aware of.”

    Did not day they were not aware, said they’d prefer not to see it.

    “Most are just pointing out possible raminifications.”

    Yes, and that in my opinion is superficial at best.

  • jim P
    ‘strong women within context…’

    ….whats always left out of the equation of prostitution is the MEN. The ones that create the need and profession…

    Takes 2 to tango…
    so they say…..
    Imants, i like your reference to growing opium…

  • Friend to this woman’s then teenage son, “Woah. Your mom has nice tits in that photo, man. How much does she charge?”

    You don’t see a potential problem, here?

  • Shallow and superficial, Jim. You’re not looking deep enough.

  • Michael, it’s not a deep issue. It’s very simple.

  • How are the children cared for when mom is working? I assume she must sometimes leave at a moment’s notice. What contingencies does she have for this? Does she leave them on their own? This has no bearing on the larger question being debated, but is just factual information not addressed in text or caption I am curious about.

  • As an essay, I like this a lot; I like the photography and I admire Yesica for her determination to raise her kids, but [there’s always a but, isn’t there?] I have to agree with Jim. Someone is going to throw this in her kids’ faces; that’s just the way kids are. It will take a lot of strength for Yesica’s kids to look up to her when their frenemies taunt them about her way of making a living.

  • Thanks everyone for expressing their ideas about this work

    I started this story almost a year ago. While I was involved in the life of Yesica, she and her children stopped being “photographic subjects” to become people with whom I shared evenings, long talks and many games.
    I remember one night that I slept in their house: It must have been 3 am and Yesi, after receiving a call, got dressed and left for work.
    While Yesi was getting dressed, I saw that her eldest daughter was awake, observing in silence the movements of her mother.
    I realized that her 8 years old, not permitted her to understand completely the situation, but were enough to make her feel that this skirt so short and this sudden output in the middle of the night, meant nothing very good.
    I wish to protect this young girl, but can you protect someone from his own reality?
    It’s only a matter of knowing or not knowing?
    Or prostitution has other consequences for a family, perhaps harder than stigmatization from others?

    As a photographer, I never felt I had the power to change this reality, but I felt I had the tools to tell it in a different way. I let prostitution be part of the essay, as well as is part of their lives, but putting the focus on the gestures, moments and feelings that for excessive moralism or simple lack of knowledge, we aren’t, often, able to see.
    I personally believe that in front of a difficult reality, it can be constructive to highlight the most valuable aspects of this same reality.

    Frostfrong: Thank you for your interesting question. When Yesica goes to work, she takes the children to the house of her mother who lives a few meters away or asks her younger sister (who also lives very close) to come to care for them if they are already asleep.



  • The young woman in this essay might be one of the “lucky” few. However, statistically speaking, she likely isn’t. It is likely that she has been raped more than once by either a john or a pimp (she may be a private contractor for the moment, but the longer she stays in the business the less likely she will remain one). She has likely been beaten by either a john or a pimp. She likely was sexually abused as a child or adolescent. She will likely be unable to pull herself out of her economic situation the longer she remains a prostitute. Again, she may be one of the “lucky” few right now, but the longer she remains in the business the more likely she (and her children) will suffer these horrors. I would be surprised if her children are not already becoming aware of their situation. So, yes, saying “These photos could potentially destroy the family.” seems, to me, to miss the mark by a mile. This family has monumental issues and concerns facing them. These photos are not one of them.

    (I hope I’m wrong about all of the above.)

  • Michael there is nothing superficial about the raminifications if shit hits the fan for some involved.

  • Michel can you assure the family that the photos will not have a negative impact on their lives?

  • People forget what tough places school yards can be let alone the playground of cyber space……….

  • Aren’t we judging too much, because we have a certain view on the profession?
    What would we write, if her profession was to work in shifts in a glue factory?
    How would we perceive this essay as a whole?
    Are we projecting our value models into a world which may have different values?
    Maybe the whole environment knows about her profession and is OK with it? – Her mother and sister probably know, may also other people. Maybe there are no secrets anymore…

    We don’t know. We assume, the photographer did something exploitative to the family. But they lived together and probably also talked about publishing and maybe about the consequences of publishing? Do we know?

    We assume the other children in school give her children a hard time. What if, their mothers are in the same profession? Probably not so unlikely.. We don’t know about their environment – we assume and judge.

    The good thing is, this essay makes us think – about the family, about the situation. Does it change anything, however? The way we think? The way we perceive? What do we feel when looking at the pictures?

    There are lot of questions inside me – how did it come to this situation, how does the environment look like, what are the people in this environment work?

  • Thomas it is a real problem schools and not just in the affluent western societies but stuff from the net finds its way into their lives with ease,remember mobiles are capable of relaying the same information but is a lot more accessible. I guess that you have all these questions understandable as you do not see directly what happens on a day to day basis and the repercussions.

  • Thomas maybe in this case there will be no problems, but be rest assured there are situations where this would create all sorts of grief and pain. I will conclude my say on that note

  • Prostitution, investment banking, I wonder which is the more honest profession.

  • Imants, you may be right – however I doubt that her situation will come to “light” via this essay.
    Even in a huge city, the neighborhood probably knows. – School also happens in the neighborhood, i.e. the children will have hard times with or without the essay, if the neighborhood is morally different.
    The essay does not give me an indication of a “secret life” or a “double identity”.

    I may be wrong, and you may be right.

  • Thomas knowing and having the photos are very different situations …….it is how the images are used that causes problems and though it may have little effect on the wider community that small circle is pretty vulnerable and it takes very little for things to get out of hand.
    Well that’s it from me…….. I am just a bit wary of the situation and the consequences of placing these type of essays in the public domain. Sure we have all sorts of war images etc
    All essays have their place

  • ps I forgot to mention one thing How would the reactions change if it were produced by a male photographer?

  • Thank you for the answer, Myriam. Pretty amazing mother and grandmother; amazing sister and aunt…

    Good question, Imants…

  • Maybe this essay and the comments can help, just maybe, in making understand our children (as parents, teachers, relatives etc.) what honesty is, and that it has little to do with the profession one has, but much more with how a person is and lives.

    If I have learned one thing as a parent, then that is that kids don’t listen to what I tell them, but learn from how I act, from how I live.. acceptance of my next is not done through words, but through believing in how I act… I cannot change others, but I can change myself.. having lived through some of what the photographer writes in her statement within very very close family probably puts me in a place where acceptance is easier..

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