“Shit, it’s thin now!” Says the stranger next to me. “When she got here, it looked great.” I ask him when it was. “It wasn’t even three months ago.” We watch the woman a little longer as she walks along one of the busy Intendentes streets. A drug addict sex worker. I already know the woman, she is an important part of my photo project.
Intendente is one of the oldest neighborhoods in Lisbon. The area has been gentrified in recent years, today tourists shape the streets. But behind the new bars and raised investment banks that pushed long-term residents to the outskirts, there is a completely different reality. A reality that the Portuguese government apparently prefers to sweep under the carpet.
In the 1960s, Intendente became known for its extremely liberal character. First came the bars, then the sex workers, and finally there was a crackdown. On August 8, 1977, A Capital newspaper reported that 1,313 sex workers between the ages of 16 and 24 were arrested in the first half of the year alone.
This crackdown declined again in the decades that followed and the number of sex workers in artistic positions increased again. In the early 2000s, the police introduced new anti-drug measures in Casal Ventoso and Curraleira, the two most notorious and rundown areas of Lisbon. However, this did not solve the city’s addiction problem, it only migrated to other parts of the city. Suddenly the drug scene flourished in the intendant.
In late 2012, the local authorities decided to invest in artistic directors. That meant: more police on the streets, because Lisbon should become more attractive for tourists again. Rents rose, the long-term residents were driven out of the apartments and were suddenly on their own. Intendente was bought up bit by bit by luxury hotel chains and investment banks. The new everyday life in the district did not completely replace the old, but only pushed it out of sight.
For a year I spent a lot of time with some of the drug addicts and sex workers who struggle to survive in this parallel world. In doing so, I not only wanted to get to know them better, but also to understand how and why the government is pretending that this dark side of Intendente does not exist.
Late in the evening I met Soraia, the drug addict sex worker, in a stairwell. She allowed me to hang out with her and take pictures of her and her friends smoking crack.
A few days later, she’s not so friendly to me when she walks across the Largo do Intendente with a friend, a popular spot in the middle of the neighborhood.
“Can I come with you?” I ask.
“Where to?” She asks back.
“Wherever you go.”
“We’re on our way to a room.”
“No thing, I would like to join.”
“No chance, I’m sorry.”
The two continue to run, cross the street and greet a waiting man. The trio gets into a taxi and continues.
At the end of a particularly frustrating day when I couldn’t take a single photo, our paths cross again. It’s two o’clock in the morning when I go home and Soraia walks straight towards me. She is annoyed because she hasn’t had a customer all evening.
Now she wants to talk to me. So I suggest visiting one of the nearby motels where they and their customers can do business. I want to take pictures of the sex worker in her actual work environment. Soraia rings the doorbell. We climb a staircase and walk across a dim hallway towards a reception counter. I hand the receptionist five euros for the room and get a key for it. “You have an hour,” she says.
Soraia is leading. “Do you mind if I smoke?” She asks when we get to our room. She strips, then lights her pipe. Crack help her feel nothing while she has customers. But it also always depends on the quality of the cocaine it contains: “If the whole thing is stretched too much, my high is often over before the customer is finished,” says Soraia.
Soraia was born in Portugal but was raised by her grandmother in Spain. Due to bad friends and a rebellious phase, she ended up in a ring of drug and weapon smugglers. For a while she worked in Germany and arranged fictitious marriages for Eastern European immigrants. Now she is back in Portugal, here she has a son. Relatives raise the child on the outskirts of Lisbon.
“I smuggled drugs into Spain for years. I never used anything myself. I saw women in my current state and saw how quickly drugs go down. I never thought I would be in this position myself,” says Soraia.
In the notebook on which Soraia has just prepared her pipe, she writes poems and texts in Spanish. She reads her favorite poem aloud to me: “Viene y va”, in German as much as “coming and going”.
Our hour is not over when the receptionist knocks on the door and calls us that we have to go because our time is up. Soraia starts nervously to pack away her pipe and pocket knife. “Don’t open the door yet,” she says. “They shouldn’t know that we smoked here.” I hold the employee out a little, a little later Soraia is dressed again and ready. When I open the door, the receptionist is already waiting with another couple. “Never show up here again,” she shouts after Soraia.
A few days later, Soraia takes me home to an abandoned house on one of the steepest streets in the area. Here she lives with ten other people. To get in, you have to squeeze through the bars of a gate and then slide a wooden panel aside that serves as a temporary door. There are buckets all around the house and even a cement mixer – the remains of a construction site that at some point stopped working.
Soraia says she’s not doing too well. One of her roommates fell in love with her and asked if she wanted to be his girlfriend. When Soraia answered no to the question, the roommate had torn all her clothes with rage.
Erineu sits on the steps of a closed bar and focuses on a crack pipe that used to be a bottleneck. With the pen of a ballpoint pen, he cleans the pipe before covering it with aluminum foil, pricking a few holes in the foil and then taking a train.
Some tourists run by and look nervous. Their goal is Largo do Intendente, but their navigation app didn’t tell them that the shortest route is not the most beautiful.
Later I meet Erineu again. He is on his way to the Mouraria area to buy drugs. He asks me if I want to go with him, but warns me that I can’t take pictures. The streets are getting narrower. We walk across tiny squares where children play soccer and old men drink beer and play cards. On the street corners, young men are on the lookout for the police and tell them when it is safe to do business.
Erineu takes a ten-euro bill from his pocket and passes it on to the dealer. He then pulls a small, white ball out of his mouth and hands it to Erineu. On our way back we pass a small grocery store where Erineu pays 20 cents for a piece of aluminum foil that has already been cut to size. The retail sector here has adapted to the needs of local residents.