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article imageOffbeat Artist: The Faces of Phone Sex Operators

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By David Silverberg     Jun 21, 2008 in Arts
Phone sex finally gets its own photo essay. Phil Toledano’s book of phone sex operators and their stories gives these workers a voice in a society that looks down on shadowy sex jobs. Toledano explains why he’s fascinated by phone sex devotees.
In a four-part series, Digital Journal is profiling edgy and unusual artists who are breaking the rules of art and design. Discover how these bold artists are creating epic masterpieces in various media.
Digital Journal — “We don’t really know what phone sex is, which is why I was interested in it.” That statement by Phil Toledano sums up his idea to photograph phone sex operators for his new book to be released in September. Phone Sex (Twin Palm Publishers) gives us an inside look into the men and women behind the masturbatory fantasies of callers hungry for some late-night lovin’.
To Toledano, a 39-year-old New York resident, shooting phone sex workers was a natural extension of his artistic philosophy: “shine the light on the hidden dim corners of society,” he says in an interview with DigitalJournal.com. Toledano isn’t interested in commonplace subjects; look at how he illustrated the concept of bankruptcy in his first book. He also offered us a glimpse into the orgasmic faces of video game players in another concept series.
Phone sex operator Crissy
Toledano photographed 26 phone sex operators, who told him fascinating stories about their on-the-job quirks.
Courtesy Phil Toledano
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With Phone Sex, he wanted to showcase an intriguing “mass delusion,” as he calls it. “The caller agrees to delude himself,” he says, “and the operator participates in that delusion. The operator plays the part.”
And playing a role is akin to theatre, Toledano notes. It’s a suggestion that relates to several of the stories that accompany the book’s photos. As one phone sex operator tells Toledano: “To the caller, when I first answer, I am the inanimate Barbie…I view every question the callers asks me as a command for me to transform.”
The motivations to work in this shadowy industry vary, Toledano found out. One woman admitted: “I got into phone sex because I thought ‘Why not get paid for talking dirty, instead of doing it for free?’” Another woman, who said she does phone sex for twice the money she made in her previous job, waxed philosophical about the need for her line of work: “It’s not sex. It’s a cocktail of testosterone, fueled by addiction to pornography, loneliness, and the need to hear a woman’s voice.”
After interviewing 26 New York phone sex operators for the book, Toledano earned himself a self-education on a profession often marginalized and rarely discussed. He says the people he spoke to enjoyed their job, not only because they believed they were helping callers personally and sexually, but also because of the lessons they learned. One woman discovered she was a lesbian after working in phone sex, Toledano adds.
And what about guys working as phone sex operators? “It’s out there and it was a fantastic surprise, even though I later thought, ‘Why not?’” Toledano says. “Why wouldn’t a woman want to call up a straight guy to talk dirty?”
Phone sex operator Joseph
Not all phone sex workers are women, Toledano points out. Joseph was proud of his work as a straight guy helping women achieve their fantasies.
Courtesy Phil Toledano
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Toledano shocked himself, too, when he realized his sexual adventuring was extremely vanilla compared to the wild kinks phone sex lovers requested. “In phone sex, there are no limits to what people can explore.”
He met several phone sex operators who found unique niches. One guy specialized in sound effects during the calls — for example, he smacked a chair against a table to mimic a bed’s headboard banging against the wall during sex. A virgin phone sex girl had to watch porno films to learn about certain moves and phrases in order to convey realistic fantasies to her callers.
Toledano has always been interested in concept photography and telling poignant stories through his lens. His Hope & Fear series featured subjects covered in suits made of ears or guns or breasts, suggesting we’ve become an all-surveillance society (ears) or overly violent (guns). In Bankrupty, he wanted to visually interpret a term often thrown around but rarely showcased; his photos of rooms piled high with office chairs and discarded phones on cabinets say more about failed businesses than any financial earnings report.
A bobblehead Guatanemo inmate
Toledano's next project will feature kitschy items such as a "terrorist bobblehead."
Courtesy Phil Toledano
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Always the provocateur, Toledano has politics on his mind for his next project. He wants to create an installation of kitschy objects that depict American foreign policy. America: The Gift Shop will remind Americans of what they’ve endured for the past eight years, Toledano says. The installations would include an inflatable prison cell (think Guantanamo meets Bouncy Castle), a bobblehead of an Abu Ghraib prisoner complete with hooded face, and a snowglobe encasing Dick Cheney shredding “top secret” papers. When you shake the snowglobe, the shredded documents float around Cheney’s body.
When asked what spurred him to create this soon-to-be-completed project, Toledano replies, “People need to be woken up. They’ve been fooled by the government.”
Judging by Toledano’s CV, he dives into projects revolving around overlooked topics. “I love the ideas of ideas,” he says. “And I want to expand the vocabulary of art, even if I only add a syllable outwards through observation.”

Offbeat Artist Series

This is the first profile in a four-part series on unique talents who are rattling the artistic cage. Every day, read about a new rebel artist. Tomorrow, find out how an innovative sculptor plays with celebrity culture...and candy.
Other offbeat artists:
- Jason Kronenwald, the artist who creates celebrity portraits out of chewed bubble gum.
- Arvind Narale, the Topsy Turvy Master: Meet the man who makes upside down art
- Jay Shafer, the man who builds homes that are under 100 square feet. Could you live in a tiny house?
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