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. She had her first exhibition at the 10th PHOTO IS:RAEL International Photography Festival that was held in Tel Aviv last month.
Levi now sees herself as a strong person. But no 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 past. 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 streetwalking and substance abuse.
Question: Let’s start with your first exhibition, 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 who walk the streets because I don’t think people understand the horrors involved.
Question: Are you referring to prostitution itself or what led people to become one?
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 women there 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 that world, what the women in it 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 other photographs about women's lives, just about anything – but not of 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 past. 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 as I had been. 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, 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. 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.
Question: You mentioned that almost all the women in prostitution experienced sexual abuse. What happened to you?
When I was six years old, my school principal sexually harassed me. I told my mother but she told me I would have to cope alone. Later a neighbor abused me when I was 11 and I was raped at 14. That was when I first tried to kill myself.
Since my abuse at 6, I became violent.
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.
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.
About a year later, I got involved 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 women like me leave that life. And that led me eventually to photography.
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 what I was doing because my ex wanted to get back at me and he told them. My mother didn’t know.
She was shocked. Then I told her about my ex and his abuse of me.
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.
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 have rebuilt my life.