“As a person with mental health issues, an ex-sex worker, and having suffered domestic violence, being vulnerable, this project gave me a lot of encouragement and a sense of well being. It feels like it helps me to build my life again.”

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Overview & Background
Overview & Background 

Project Introduction


Objectives & Outputs

Project Timeline

Project Introduction

Change the Picture was a participatory photography and self-advocacy project that aimed to provide a creative support to the lives of vulnerable women, some of whom were homeless and / or street based sex workers in East London.

Built on a strong partnership between two pioneering charities – PhotoVoice and U-Turn, Change the Picture aimed to support vulnerable women by providing them with a space for creative expression and relief while also using their images and words to raise awareness of the issues they face with policy makers, service providers and public audiences. Alongside the workshops, research assessed the impact and potential of photography as a therapeutic tool and the learning gained was distributed with information and resources to practitioners and organisations working with vulnerable groups.

The project took place between January 2007 and August 2008 and was based out of U-Turn’s Women’s Centre in East London. The Women’s Centre is a space where vulnerable, homeless and street based sex working women are able to come to have a cup of tea, wash, access services and find support and advice. The majority of U-Turn’s client group have suffered varying degrees of social deprivation, abuse and violence and are dealing with mental health and substance misuse issues.

The project consisted of two main phases. The first phase involved twenty eight weeks of drop in workshops that took place at Women’s Centre and were open to all users. The second phase involved one on one sessions where the lead facilitator worked with five women to produce images and writing specifically for a public postcard advocacy and awareness campaign and exhibition.

PhotoVoice worked with one lead and three rotating facilitators to ensure a range of skills, knowledge and experiences was brought to the project at different times. Working closely with the U Turn staff, the facilitators were able to create a safe forum for the women to experiment with photography and share their stories. A trained psychotherapist provided additional support to both the women and the facilitators. During the workshops, equal space was given to photographic work and creative writing in the form of storytelling, captioning and poetry. This proved successful in engaging the women emotionally and helping to develop their stories.

A safe forum was fundamental to the development of the postcard advocacy and awareness campaign, as well as to the exhibition - it was only through the bonds that built up, that the women felt confident and secure enough to grant copyright and consent for their images and words.



U-Turn offers its innovative support, information and practical intervention primarily to vulnerable and homeless women, but many of them are working as sex workers. The facts and figures below give some context to Change the Picture and the women we worked with.

  • It is estimated that in the UK more than 80,000 women are involved in prostitution.Robust figures on the number of people involved are not currently available. The often-quoted figure of 80,000 comes from a 1999 Europap-UK survey of 17 well-established projects in larger conurbations. Typically, these types of projects were in touch with around 665 women. Around 120 such projects were known to be operating at the time which would bring the total number of those involved to around 79,800. http://www.homeoffice.gov.uk/documents/paying_the_price.pdf pg 17
  • In this country around half began their involvement in prostitution before their 18th birthday. Some studies suggest that the figure may be closer to 75%.http://www.homeoffice.gov.uk/documents/paying_the_price.pdf pg 23
  • Rarely do they choose a life on the streets; they are usually forced by drug addiction and a history of physical, sexual and mental abuse. In one survey over half the women said they did not like prostitution; only 13 percent said they were “fairly happy” and more than half had experienced violence.Selling Sex in the City: An evaluation of a targeted arrest referral scheme for sex workers in Kings Cross, South Bank University, 2001 p.23
  • Street prostitution is a dangerous occupation. The women make instant judgments and take enormous risks, often trying to earn enough money to combat drugs cravings.
  • The mortality rate for women in street prostitution in London equals twelve times the national average.http://www.homeoffice.gov.uk/documents/paying_the_price.pdf pg 23 In the UK as many as 90 sex workers have been murdered in the last 12 yearsStreets Apart: Outdoor Prostitution in London, Julie Bindel and Helen Atkins, Guardian, May 15 2004, http://www.guardian.co.uk/theguardian/2004/may/15/weekend7.weekend4 and have been shown to be by far the most at risk female group for homicide.Lowman & Fraser, 1995; Potterat, Brewer, Muth, Rothberg, Woodhouse, Muth, Stites, and Brody, 2004; Ward, Day and      Weber, 1999
  • Over 80 percent of women involved in street prostitution suffer violence, compared to 48 percent of women in off-street prostitution.Church et al, 2001, 98% (Benson, 1998) Teela Sanders, Urban Studies p.3.
  • 95% of women sex workers are believed to be addicted to drugs according to the Home Office.
  • 70% of prostitutes (and their children) are believed to have been in care at some point in their lives.
  • These women, are for the most part hidden, they receive little notice or attention in the press and this coupled with their disconnected lives compounds the risks they face and their isolation.
  • There is a need for a holistic approach to tackle the multiplicity of issues that affect these women if we want to assist them to achieve a long-term sustainable change in their lives.

Issues around the existence of a sex ‘trade’

Prostitution makes victims of many of those involved in it, and of those communities in which it takes place. Key concerns include:

  • The nuisance caused to neighbourhoods through noise, litter and harassment
  • The impact on the neighbourhood in terms of undermining economic regeneration and neighbourhood renewal
  • The advertising of prostitution, particularly through soliciting on the street and the use of prostitutes’ cards.
  • The spread of sexually and drug transmitted infections
  • Increasing use of the internet as a grooming/advertising medium
  • Links with drug abuse / markets
  • Links with criminality, including robbery
  • Related violence, including serious assaults against those involved in prostitution
  • The increasing stigmatisation and social exclusion of those involved in prostitution
  • The abuse of children through prostitution
  • The impact on their families
  • People trafficking for the purposes of commercial sexual exploitation
  • The effect on the attitudes of men to women, and on gender equality more generally.

Objectives and Outputs

The objectives of Change the Picture were:

  • To enable the women to enjoy and express themselves and work through difficulties they face through using photography as a therapeutic tool within a safe and secure environment
  • To enable the women to gain confidence in their own voices and their place within society and to be empowered to speak out about their lives, needs and the issues they face
  • To enable the women to learn new creative, digital and IT skills
  • To create participatory photography workshop models for working with vulnerable and abused groups
  • To research the impact and potential of photography as a therapeutic tool with vulnerable and abused women
  • To distribute the research findings and workshop models within in a document that will share learning about photography as a therapeutic tool and encourage good practice
  • To create a body of photographic work that can be used to educate public audiences on the experiences of female sex workers in London, highlighting the obstacles faced by these vulnerable women.

Project Outputs

  • 28 weekly drop in workshops attended by 31 women
  • Ongoing exhibition of work and ‘image wallboard’ at the Women’s Centre
  • 10 one on one workshops with 5 women to produce postcard images and writing
  • 5 advocacy postcards sent weekly to over 260 key individuals
  • Public exhibition of images and writing in a London restaurant
  • Case-study publication detailing project methods and learning


Project Timeline

January – March 2007
- Development
- Recruitment
- Training

April – December 2007
- Weekly drop in photography workshops

January – May 2007
- Postcard Campaign and exhibition workshops – individual sessions

May – July 2007

- Postcard distribution
- Exhibition Preparation

July 2008
- Exhibition opening
- Evaluation report produced

Copyright 2008 PhotoVoice
P: 020 7033 3878
E: info@photovoice.org
UK Charity no: 1096598