Amanda Hailes: Absence Of Evidence Is Not Evidence Of Absence

Amanda Hailes is part of the Hull-based women’s collective An Untold Story, who have all been involved in street prostitution in Hull and their book An Untold Story tells the stories of their lives through poetry, interviews, prose and artwork. In this guest blog she talks about their recent collaboration with artists Henry/Bragg on the photo exhibition 'Absence of Evidence'; 14 images honouring 14 women, friends, who have died. Amanda is also part of our Being the Story Spokesperson Network. 

Amanda Hailes is part of the Hull-based women’s collective An Untold Story, who have all been involved in street prostitution in Hull and their book An Untold Story tells the stories of their lives through poetry, interviews, prose and artwork. In this guest blog she talks about their recent collaboration with artists Henry/Bragg on the photo exhibition ‘Absence of Evidence’; 14 images honouring 14 women, friends, who have died. Amanda is also part of our Being the Story Spokesperson Network.

I am part of a collective of ex-street prostitutes called An Untold Story-Voices who live in the incredible city of Hull. In 2016 we began to write a book called An Untold Story, telling our stories and experiences of life on the streets and street prostitution.

As a collective we wanted to highlight the multiple disadvantages that we experienced and what thousands of women are still experiencing today in Hull and the rest of the country. Living with any disadvantage such as poverty, childhood trauma, domestic abuse, mental ill health, addiction, homelessness, coercion and exploitation, street prostitution, violence and sexual violence, can be overwhelming, but when these disadvantages are stacked upon each other making multiple disadvantages it can have a devastating impact on women’s lives.

Each week a group of eight of us would meet in a beautiful sewing room. We supported each other as we relived our lives and put it on paper, writing stories, prose and poems, artwork, photos and illustrations.

One by one, four of our group died. This was truly heartbreaking and we became even more determined to continue to highlight what women who work the streets, who are trying to survive so many disadvantages are facing today.

In 2017 we published our book and we have continued to highlight the complexities of multiple disadvantages, we talked to Woman’s Hour on BBC Radio Four, Big Issue magazine and the BBC World Service. I was also invited to speak at Being the Story and up to that point I had the pseudonym Millie, but if I was going to challenge stigma how could I do that hiding behind a fake name. I didn’t want to just challenge stigma, I wanted to shatter it so this was the first time I used my real name and I haven’t hid behind anything since that day.

In 2019 our amazing supporters at Lankelly Chase Foundation introduced us to Henry/Bragg photography artists. Julie and Debbie came up to Hull for the day with loads of cameras and as a group we took them on a journey around Hull’s Red light district, past and present, taking photos and talking about why these places still resonate with us today. We chose 14 images of everyday things, a doorway where I used to stand as a prostitute when it was raining, a phone box in the red light district, behind an abandoned building where a woman was found after being beaten and left for dead. Simple images that tell of pain and loss. The images were accompanied by snippets of conversations we recorded while seeing all the photos for the first time.

The 14 images represent 14 women, who we knew, who were friends, who we loved that have sadly died since 2016. These deaths have impacted our group in ways we never imagined.

As a joint collaboration of An Untold Story-Voices and Henry/Brag we were going to show these 14 photos in a gallery setting and then the world changed because of Covid-19. So we had to rethink the whole exhibition and we decided to exhibit the images on the street. A bus shelter in the red light district in Hull and massive billboards in our city, a street exhibition about life on the streets, working the streets and trying to survive the streets, where everyday people passing by would see it.

We also wanted to remember the lives lost so we did a pop up street gallery in Hull city centre on the 14th of July, helped by a group of our friends and supporters.

14 people holding 14 images with 14 minutes silence.

While we stood in a large circle holding the photographs outwards, people slowly walked around looking at each image, reading the words accompanying each, pausing and nodding. Their silence joined ours. This felt incredibly powerful and poignant, telling our stories, the stories of those we have lost, the stories of women today trying to survive and we did this without words, without speaking.

Many women facing multiple disadvantages feel they have no voice and they too are silent, so these 14 minutes of silence was also remembering those that have no voice. The images were also shown on billboards in Shoreditch and fly posters in Soho. We spoke to Humberside Radio, The Guardian Newspaper and Soho Radio to highlight the reasons behind this exhibition.

On the 30th of July our tiny group went to London for the day and met our London friends and supporters in Soho to replicate our 14 minute silence. Again we felt the power of the silence. We are going to have another pop up street gallery again in the city centre of Hull to finish this exhibition.

With successive governments and local councils over the past 20 years cutting budgets to vital services, women are left with nowhere to turn. This cannot continue. Women are dying. In doing this street exhibition we want to start the difficult and sometimes awkward conversations, to give people a different perspective, an insight and understanding into what thousands of women are facing today, not just in Hull but across our country.  We wanted to highlight the realities of survival.

13-26 July 2020 Hull

20-02 Aug 2020 Shoreditch, London

27-09 Aug 2020 Soho, London 

Take a look at the photos here www.absenceofevidence.co.uk

Read the Untold Story Book here www.anuntoldstory-voices.com

About the Author

Amanda Hailes is part of the Hull-based women’s collective An Untold Story, who have all been involved in street prostitution in Hull and their book An Untold Story tells the stories of their lives through poetry, interviews, prose and artwork. Amanda has gone on to become a peer-researcher for Ava and Agenda, working towards change for other women experiencing multiple disadvantage. Amanda is also part of our Being the Story Spokesperson Network. She shares her story to shatter the stigma and create understanding for women with similar experiences who face marginalisation.

Watch Amanda’s Being the Story talk

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