Merav Levi: I thought I would die a prostitute — Interview
Photography has provided a platform for Merav Levi, 44, to share the story of her journey from prostitution and substance abuse to her new dream of becoming an art photographer. A collection of her photographs was on display at the 10th PHOTO IS:RAEL International Photography Festival last month.
Levi now sees herself as a strong person. But not so very long ago, she only saw herself dead, mostly by her own hand, or, for a time, at the hands of a previous male partner. At the end of her rope, she made concrete plans to take her life but suddenly she understood that if she was strong enough to kill herself because of a man, she was strong enough to leave him and ask for help.
A twisted and uneven path took her to ‘Her Academy,’ a vocational training program helping women exiting prostitution. The college invited her to learn photography but she hated cameras – they were associated with her clients. In any case, she accepted the invitation.
I spoke with Levi on Zoom to learn about this new chapter in her life and then she helped me understand what leads a young woman with dreams into the world of prostitution and substance abuse.
Question: Let’s start with today: You recently had an exhibit with PHOTO IS:RAEL – when did you connect with them and how did that happen?
I wanted very much to take one of their courses taught by the photographer Eyal Landesman but I couldn’t afford it. I live on national insurance benefits. An NGO volunteer paid for the course for me.
In the course, we were taught to produce a series of images and I wanted to photograph the community of women in prostitution because I don’t think people understand the horrors involved.
Question: Are you referring to prostitution itself or what led people to become prostitutes?
I was in therapy for five years, and I was in group sessions and you hear stories that make you think only Satan can create such things. Evil is disclosed in prostitution to degrees that defy description. And it is also in the sexual abuse that 99.9% of the prostitutes experienced as children or at some other point in their lives, the abuse that allowed them to jump over the threshold into that world. I don’t see someone who has had a good life working in prostitution.
I wanted to show the evil in the world of prostitution, what prostitutes endure, and the way out of it. Leaving that world is very difficult.
At the end of the course, they asked me if I want to put up an exhibition of my photographs.
Question: Were all students invited to exhibit?
No. [Here Merav smiles shyly.] I was the only one.
Question: Where do you see yourself going from here?
My dream is to do art photography. But in the meantime, I would like to do pregnancy photographs, for example, just about anything – but nothing with men, unless there is a woman beside him.
I am also taking a course that will train me to be a group facilitator for the PHOTO IS:RAEL project called PHOTO IS:VOICES. Facilitators work with various communities to help them express themselves and become empowered through photography.
Question: Let’s go back to the first photography course you took, at Her Academy. You said that until that point, the camera was associated with your clients. How did that change by the end of the course?
By the third lesson, my teacher said I am very talented and I would get out of prostitution and be a photographer. I didn’t believe her. I was sure I would die a prostitute. As the lessons went on, I began to love the ability to express myself.
At the end of the course, my teacher gave me her camera and told me that when I feel the need, I should go out and take pictures.
After a hard day with clients, I took the camera and went out to a park near home and began to photograph everything just to get rid of the awful feelings. Gradually I noticed how my feelings changed from wanting to cut my veins to wanting to take photos.
The world of prostitution is a world of silence – clients talk but you don’t talk to them about what is going on for you. Suddenly I had an instrument to express pain, frustration, wanting to die. I knew that I wanted to learn more about how to bring the story to the world.
I had to be clean of drugs and alcohol to get a grant from the National Insurance Institution to study. I succeeded, and at the age of 41, I enrolled in a two-year course at Studio Gavra. A whole new world opened up to me.
But, while I left the world of prostitution, the world of prostitution did not leave me. It still lives inside and it is a war every day to fight the urge to drink and the anxiety attacks.
Question: You mentioned that almost all prostitutes experienced sexual abuse. What happened to you?
When I was six years old, my school principal sexually harassed me. He would wait for me after school and touch me and have me touch him. I told my mother but she told me I would have to cope alone. In the neighbourhood everyone knew there were many pedophiles. We always knew there were men who liked little girls. A neighbour abused me when I was 11 and I was raped at 14. That was when I first tried to kill myself.
None of my sisters experienced what I experienced and nobody other than my mother knew about the school principal. After a few months, I was thrown out of school because I had become violent and my father hit me. I didn’t tell him why I was violent. I felt I had won, that I had escaped the principal.
When I was nine, my father died and my mother fell apart. My sisters and I were sent to religious boarding schools and I was there for three years. I only knew violence for dealing with problems, I was thrown out of that school too and my mother had to take me home.
From 11th grade, I started using alcohol and sleeping with older men. I didn’t understand the connection between my behaviour and what had happened. I just thought of myself as being very sexy.
I married at 19 and was divorced at 26. It was my dream then to be a holistic therapist. I studied massage and found work in a respectable spa. There were sometimes requests for sexual favours but I refused. I was very sexual, but not at work.
Then one night I had an anxiety attack and flashbacks from age six – everything came back. I lost my job at the spa and I fell apart. At that point, I told myself that in any case, I’m a whore, I sleep with everyone and don’t have money, so I will be a whore and make money. I was 32 years old.
I set up a massage table in my apartment and advertised on Yad2. I then entered another world I never knew before. The men who came had fantasies and desires I never knew existed. This broke my heart – to go from a respectable path to prostitution. For the first two years, I was in denial.
I was making lots of money. The men would give me drugs. I had never wanted drugs and suddenly they were free and available and it helped me cope.
The reality of a whore is different from reality — it has its own laws and you have to behave in accordance with that.
About a year later, I fell in love with a man who eventually abused me psychologically and physically and he would take my money. When I understood my life was in danger from this man, I just wanted protection. That is when I found an organization that helps prostitutes leave that life. And that led me eventually to photography.
Question: What can you tell me about your process of creating your photos?
Every position and object in my photos are chosen and the image is in my head several days until the day I take the picture. I get enrichment from the Internet and buy accessories so that they are available in my home the moment I need them. I don’t know when an anxiety attack will happen. If it happens at home, no problem — I have the materials at home.
I plan each photo in advance and when it actually happens, it is from a momentary urge.
Question: You told your mother about the school principal when you were six and she did not help you. Does she know about how your life developed as a result of that abuse?
My mother knew that I had studied massage and that I was working at a spa. When I became a prostitute I couldn’t even acknowledge that to myself. I had ambitions of being a holistic therapist. After I was fired from the spa, I told everyone that I am a massage therapist working at home.
My sisters found out about the prostitution because my ex wanted to get back at me and he told them. My mother didn’t know. If you tell her you are doing massages, she understands it is massages and that’s it. Since I left prostitution, I am living on benefits and my mother could not understand why I didn’t continue working at such a well-paying job.
I started gently, telling her that I was harassed by some of the men. She said, you can’t work with men? Why not with women? Finally, I told her, ‘Ima listen, I understand that you are straight and narrow and when you hear massage you think it’s massage, but it wasn’t. Our world is perverse. It was prostitution.’
She was shocked. Then I told her about my ex and his abuse of me. She wanted to know if I still had any contact with any of my clients and I told her that I was not in touch with any of them. I cut off from everyone. I decided on a new path and I am not going back. Some tried to tempt me back with lots of money. But no.
Suddenly she understood that her daughter had made a huge change. And when she saw the connection between the abuse at the age of six and all that followed, she apologized profusely. She said that what people are aware of today nobody was aware of years ago. She grew up in a primitive community in which toddlers are already promised and girls could be married at the age of nine.
My mother is proud of me and how I turned my life around. Of my four sisters, three told me they are with me through thick and thin. And I now am in a healthy relationship with a man.
A briefer version of this article appeared first in Israel National News.