One afternoon not long ago, Ada Trillo, an Elkins Park mother of two, found herself fleeing a Juarez, Mexico, brothel ahead of cartel members chasing her with guns.
It seems fitting that her new exhibition at Twenty-Two Gallery — the culmination of three years photographing the bleak and unnaturally brief lives of prostitutes in this border town — is called “How did I get here?”
Trillo was raised in Juarez, but didn’t learn about the plight of sex workers until 2015. Since then, she has paid for seven or eight trips there, photographing more than 100 women over three years — long enough to get to know the women, to watch them be destroyed by drugs or fall victim to gang violence. As women went missing, girls as young as 15 arrived to take their place.
Trillo, 41, is a painter. This is her first photography exhibition. All proceeds will go to the Coalition Against Trafficking Women, an international relief organization, and the Mother Antonia Center of the Oblate Sisters of the Most Holy Redeemers, a center run by nuns who work with women fleeing the brothels.
She spoke with us about her work and her hopes for redemption.
What drove you to do this work?
It happened kind of by chance. I wanted to do a work about immigration, to show the trajectory of the immigrants as they are trying to cross into the United States. But none of the coyotes, the smugglers, agreed. And even if they would, the journey is done during the night, so a quality picture would require a flash. I would be basically exposing the people I wanted to help. Then I got a lead: Do you want to go the brothels? They took me to this part of town I wasn’t familiar with, and I was shocked. So I kept going for three years.
What shocked you about it?
There was a woman, Mariana. I didn’t expect a sex worker to look like her. Her arms are covered with heroin marks, and these started getting infected because she used whatever needles she could get her hands on. She’s been told if she doesn’t stop, they will need to remove her arms. This was not what I pictured when I heard “sex worker.” When I saw this, I said, “This is important.”
As I started investigating, I realized people all over the world have similar circumstances. I went to do photography in Kensington, and it was horrendous. I was almost raped. And I saw things I’ve never seen before: a sex worker that was pregnant, with heroin marks in her neck. That I saw in Philadelphia. This is a global problem.
How did you get access to the brothel?
There was a group of three. Maria Lourdes Aguero, a former sex worker, introduced me to the women and talked to the gangs, to the cartel, and she basically told them I’m an artist, that I’m not a reporter. Otherwise it was impossible. Then, I went with a social worker, Blanca Cerceda, who was affiliated with the nuns who help them. She recorded the stories. We had 15 minutes for each photograph. We paid them the same amount a john would, about $7 to $10. Even though we offered to pay them for a half-hour or 45 minutes, they didn’t want to stay. They were scared the other girls might steal their steady clients.
What was the most difficult part of this work?
What’s difficult is to see that they keep digging deeper into the hole. One girl, in the first photograph I took, her face looks healthy. But she kept losing weight. The last time I saw her was six months ago. You can see she’s lost a tremendous amount of weight, and that’s because she started using crack.
In another photo, a woman is jumping on the bed. She was high on heroin. But she was coming down. Then she started sobering up really quickly, and she started telling us that her son was shot in the neck. That’s the thing with the drugs: Coming down, they return to reality, and they don’t like it. Not only that, the side effects of withdrawal without proper treatment are horrendous. One girl, Bonita, started dealing. She consumed all the drugs, so they killed her.
So, how did they get there?
The majority come from different parts of Mexico, trying to migrate to the United States. Some get stuck there. Many start at 15. Claudia was a runaway. She was repeatedly raped from age 6 until she was 13, when she ran away. Another woman, her uncle owned the brothel where she works. Another one, her mom is a sex worker, and she put her to work I think at the age of 13 or 15.
What do you hope to accomplish here?
My immediate hope is to fund another room or two in the safe house that the nuns have. They only have three rooms. The other donations are going to an organization that works with trafficked children. My hope? I want people to be aware so they can help, with whatever resources they might have.
And for the women, I want to give them respect. Claudia loved this picture because she had gotten new sneakers. She was really happy posing for us. Even when she was on top of the bed, the sneakers had to be part of the picture.
Did you ever feel you were in danger?
I was interviewing and photographing a girl that was high on crack. She got very aggressive with me, so I said, “OK, I’m finished. I’m not going to use your pictures.” Now, my relationship with many of the girls is really good. If I’m in a brothel and photographing, they will come during their break so I can take their picture. She came over one day. I said, “Look, here’s 70 pesos, but I can’t take your picture. We had a bad experience.” She got angry, and she told the cartel I was a reporter. They threw us out and said, “They’re coming with guns. Get out now!” I left part of my equipment there.
It can be dangerous, but if I get the work I need, it’s worth it.
“How did I get here?” by Ada Trillo
Open Wednesday-Sunday, noon-6 p.m., through Aug. 6, Twenty-Two Gallery, 236 S. 22nd St., 215-772-1911, www.twenty-twogallery.com