elena perlino – des corps dans la ville

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Elena Perlino

Des Corps Dans la Ville

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Prostitution is legal in France, but soliciting customers is not. The immediate consequence of newly passed laws against passive soliciting has changed the sex trade. Large concentrations of utility vehicles serving as accommodation crowd the nightly streets of the city suburbs. The shaking and bouncing vans leave little doubt as to the activities going on inside.

In Lyon, prostitutes from Brazil, Portugal, and Cameroon, as well as transvestites from Algeria, have largely been ousted from their usual haunts in the Perrache station neighborhood. Candles on the dashboards of surreal rows of white vans dimly illuminate the women’s faces. An open door means available, a closed door means busy.

The Rhone and Saone rivers outline the area for sex trade. Police controls, waiting for clients, drugs and alcohol, all evaporate by the quickly arriving dawn. The mix of people you meet is far from any stereotype. Fear and loneliness are felt but so is the intimacy of a well-tuned microcosm. Fernanda for example, a Portuguese prostitute in her sixties, not only receives old clients but also stitches their worn clothing on occasion.

Cassandra and Sylvie, two Algerian brothers, unfolded a whole new view on this subject for me.

Upon their yearly return to Algeria, their skirts, high heels and wigs are abandoned, and they slip into the role of heterosexual Algerian men, living with their families.  Algerian law prohibits homosexuality or transsexual conduct, which is severely punished by imprisonment, not to mention the social stigma.

Conseil Régional Rhône-Alpes has commissioned the project and a series of images was exhibited at the Biennal Septembre de la photographie, Lyon, 2006 – Des corps dans la ville.

A selection of images will be part of Le Mois de la Photo in November 2010, Paris, France.



Born 1972 in Italy, Elena Perlino currently lives in northern Italy.

After receiving her degree from the faculty of arts at the university of Turin,  she discovered  serious photography at Toscana Photographic Workshop in Italy. In 2003  she was selected for the Reflexions Masterclass, directed by Giorgia Fiorio and Gabriel Bauret in Paris, which gave focus to her work.

Today she works as an independent photographer on assignment for editorial projects and cultural institutions and develops personal works.

Her clients include D di Repubblica, Io Donna, GQ, Max, Specchio, Elle, Grazia, Glamour, Anna, Rockstar, and Tauchsport among others. Her pictures have been exhibited and awarded in Bosnia, France, Italy, Spain, Sweden and the USA.


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Elena Perlino


26 Responses to “elena perlino – des corps dans la ville”

  • not an ideal way to shop

  • Storytelling, as done here, makes me forget about the pictures, the photography, and just think about the story itself, the protagonists, their lives.. close as it gets, but leaving them their space. Grazie!

  • Elena, number 19 speaks so much to me it makes all the other images fade away. And that’s saying something as there is a whole lot of great imagery here. Congratulations

  • Congratulations on being published on Burn Elena. And thank you for sharing the very sad stories of the people in your images. Such a horrific trap… Well told. Thanks.

  • This is very well done. Love it. My only thought is that number 8 does not fit. It kinda jumps out from the rest of the series in my mind. I don’t feel it is needed.

    Again, EXCELLENT.

  • Fascinating. Strange world we live in. Well done.

  • Transvestite/transexual prostitutes is always going to be an interesting subject for photography. I think to succeed you have to immerse yourself in the scene – you seem to have got pretty close to the subjects. But the photographs aren’t strong or unique enough in my opinion. I mean, immigrant tranny hookers aren’t unusual in any large city and they’ve been photographed by so many, most famously by Nan Goldin and Diane Arbus – you’re going to have to get some fairly strong shots together to stand out.
    To me, you missed the most interesting part of this story:
    “Upon their yearly return to Algeria, their skirts, high heels and wigs are abandoned, and they slip into the role of heterosexual Algerian men, living with their families. Algerian law prohibits homosexuality or transsexual conduct, which is severely punished by imprisonment, not to mention the social stigma.”

  • Elena, stunning. Just saw a documentary on a group of women (not prostitutes) that are working on getting the vans legal in England. I thought then it was an odd idea and where would they park? And would the neighborhood be overwhelmed by “rocking and rolling” vans. The photos of the vans parked along the road answered the question.

    These photographs are very intimate; you were right there–even with a client in the car. You did such a good job with available light and your photos tell a story that kept my attention. Nice work Elena; congratulations on being featured here on Burn.

  • I keep flashing between the last two images, back and forth—-they are lovely.

    ‘barbie takes a walk on the dark side’

  • These images have serious photographic and journalistic clout. Excellent work. Eye opening.

  • What a nightmare you have taken us into – both for the prostitutes and their clients, it looks to me – although the prostitutes appear to be living in pure hell. I knew nothing of these vans until I saw this essay. Sometimes, here in the sexually conflicted and contradictory US, I wonder if perhaps many of the problems surrounding prostitution could be solved if society could just accept that it is a fundamental function of human nature, could legalize it, pass and strictly enforce laws to protect those who would become prostitutes and to really come down hard on those who would traffic and prey upon those who would choose not to but get forced into it.

    Now, I see your essay and I am left with the feeling that perhaps it is all hopeless, that humans are simply incapable of rationally dealing with all the manifestations and implications of their own sexuality – the very thing that keeps us going on this earth.

    Well done. You did not get overly graphic, yet you told this oft-told story in way that I had never before seen it told and you brought it home powerfully.

  • Good work Elena, held my attention from start to finish. Throughout, I wondered what the hell the people living in the neighbourhood thought of the nightly invasion of white vans!

    Prostitution is a complicated and multi-faceted subject matter with, I would imagine, almost as many stories as there are participants.

    Thanks for telling your subject’s stories so well.


  • I really wanted to like this as the story is a strong one, and I really tried to get into the pictures because of this….but they dont move me and they hardly engage me at all. A shame as I think there is a story here. Maybe I am expecting too much, and maybe I put the pictures above the story(in fact i know I do), but I do know this presentation, as it stands, shows me a story but doesnt show me any extraordinary photography.

  • Elena, bravo! This is a remarkable project and I think you have some brilliant images. First impression, although 3, 4, 5, 6 are excellent, the slideshow appears to get slightly stronger in the latter part (17, 18, 19 are extraordinary). I think you might consider dropping some of the weaker, less clear or more ubiquitous images (such as 7 or 9 for example), though I can see they serve a purpose. I like your writing, straight and to the point, and your illuminating thumbnail stories (such as Fernanda) are touching (be interesting to read more of those). You really bring home the ‘intimacy of a well-tuned microcosm’. I am sure there is plenty of fear (and perhaps far worse), but I don’t know about living ‘in pure hell.’ Hell compared to my privileged, essentially middleclass world, sure, quite possibly, but there are many kinds of suffering, many forms of pleasure and pain driven by our relentless appetites, and I’ve known a few people who’ve lived on the rougher side of the tracks and survived. What strikes me about these images is the intimacy of that makeshift world, its fusion of the contemporary and the ancient (it may not actually be the ‘oldest profession’, but it’s certainly close). Again, bravo!

  • fairly interesting image, but many of the captions feel speculative at best – they just don’t match up with the content of the images. in cases like this, i almost feel like the captions need to be stripped right down; let the project statement/introduction set the scene.

  • dark
    a need
    a desire
    a lust..

    would love to see more…. this is a great story… bravo!

  • Hi Elana..

    people are always interesting. Coming together. Needy in there opposite ways. The dynamics of how we respond to a given situation, and how changing a law has such consequences. I feel you’ve caught a lot of that in this essay.
    I liked the look of some of these images. That soft glow.

  • It’s one of those essays……….. you have got to have been there or in a similar place to feel the atmosphere. One looks at the images and says >”yea I remember that night”………..

  • Funny you say that, Imants, I feel that this is an essay that has the strenght to convey the atmosphere even without knowing it first hand..

  • Great feel to this essay. Number 9 doesn’t do it for me – otherwise I really like the photographs. Impressed by how close you got.

  • Jamie Maxtone-Graham

    I’ve looked at this essay a couple of times now and I kept – and keep on – wanting it to be great. Considering your proximity and your obvious access I wanted this essay to knock me out. It should. But it feels like something stands between your courage and either your ability or your experience (or something like that).

    There are, in fact, several terribly compelling images that I wished you’d followed on with (#8 for example really goes somewhere that the others dont ever touch). Something is expressed in that single frame that the sum of the others doesn’t quite reach. Still, nothing to moan about; it’s work that is better than most and that’s why it’s here and you are to be congratulated. It’s greedy of me but I want something more out of this really rich material. And it’s just right there for you…..

  • Jamie – A very witty choice of words on your part:

    “Still, nothing to moan about…”

  • Hello Elena
    I just spent one year in Lyon, and I had read that the city was conducting a war against prostitution, which had moved more in the suburbs, is anyway the same problem in all major French cities since the closure of brothels.
    In any case I find your story particularly successful because intimate, We feel you near these bodies, with them for the better and worse, if I may say …
    I especially like the first photo and the title …
    Congratulations for this publication.

  • Interesting how different people can have wholly different takes (one of the reasons I keep coming back to Burn). To Jamie Maxtone-Graham ‘it feels like something stands between [Elena Perlino’s] courage and either [her] ability or [her] experience (or something like that).’

    Elena is the only person who can verify whether or not her courage was obstructed in some way. As I have indicated, there are some images which seem (to me) to detract from the strength of this series, mainly the ones in which there either doesn’t appear to be enough happening or whose content is too indistinct, but these are relatively few. She certainly seems courageous enough to me, from both an artistic and purely physical point of view. There is a real grittiness to her approach, and a warmth too; I think Capa would have approved.

    As Jamie notes, there are ‘several terribly compelling images’, but, once again, I disagree with him that #8 ‘really goes somewhere that the others dont ever touch’ or ‘reach’, which implies that this is the strongest images in the series. It is a striking portrait, sure, and there is a nice frankness to it. But its posed symmetry and relative stillness seems slightly out of whack to me, closer to Arbus territory. There’s an intimacy here, but I’d argue that the rest of the series has an intimacy too, only less formally one-to-one and more in the run of that particular ‘microcosm’. I think #8 gets slightly in the way of that; its a distraction (and possibly another kind of project).

    But I’m glad Jamie thinks that Elena is ‘to be congratulated’ for this ‘rich material’. I’m with him on that one, all the way.

  • Thank all of you so much for the active feedback!

    Your remarks are a great “kick in the butt” for me, and push me to develop the story further, which I have been planning since the beginning.

    I am currently searching for the means to realize the “rest of the story” in Algeria, which I know will put another angle on this subject, which in fact has been documented so often. Having established relationships, which go well beyond the scope of this project with most of the subjects, has already given me astonishing insight.

    Single images can be interpreted infinitively and I greatly enjoy the variety of opinions. The thing I thank you for most is the appreciation for the intimacy of the situations I tried to document.

    Thanks a lot,


  • I was so excited to see this essay when I read the description. What an interesting subject you had the opportunity to pursue. I am so sorry that you chose to photograph it in such an passive, un-detailed and un-insightful way. These blurry/fuzzy/grainy pictures bothered the hell out of me. Get in their faces, take clear pictures, and show me what the hell is going on!

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