Life through a lens
“The adult webcam industry in Romania is a phenomenon on a huge scale,” says Lorenzo Maccotta, who travelled the country documenting those who work in the sector – the global value of which is estimated at between $2-$3 billion a year. In studios across Romania, English-speaking models spend at least eight hours a day in front of cameras. They have one-on-one interactions with clients, typically men from Europe and North America, who pay by the minute to have the models strip, perform ‘cybersex’, or in some cases, just engage in conversation.
Maccotta believes that high youth unemployment, a low minimum wage and a large English-speaking population have helped Romania establish itself as an adult webcam industry leader. But he also thinks that the country’s excellent IT infrastructure plays a key role. “New technology is creating job opportunities for young people,” he says. “I don’t think being a cam model is a nice job to do, but you can easily put yourself in the models’ shoes. It can be very lucrative.”
Bucharest’s Studio 20 is one of the most successful adult webcam companies in Romania and the winner of the Cam Studio of the Year award at the 2017 AW Summit. The woman pictured left is the company’s highest-earning model (none of the models revealed their real name). “She told me that she earned around €30,000 in a single month,” says Maccotta. The average salary in Romania is around €500 a month.
She works in front of a green screen. “This is the VR room at Studio 20, the first of its kind,” explains Maccotta. “The user can change the background image.” The industry is investing heavily in VR technology, which has the potential to transform the user experience – customers will have the sensation of being in the same room as the models.
Studio 20 streams its feeds through LiveJasmin, a Luxembourg-based website which attracts nearly 40 million users every day, pushing it close to being one of the 100 most popular sites on the internet. It attracts the customers, takes their money and then distributes approximately half to the studio, to be split with the model.
The 22-year-old employee pictured above works in Lucky Studio, an operation based in Iasi, eastern Romania. Like all the models Maccotta photographed, she spends her working life communicating with customers around the world. Apart from the spotlights and the air-con unit, her computer keyboard and monitor are the only items in the room. “It’s no longer possible to separate the human being from technology,” says Maccotta. “Technology is evolving the human being.”
Maccotta describes Studio 20 as “a strange mix of a regular IT company and a brothel”. “I think the owner takes good care of his models; they represent his investment,” he says. “It’s funny because I saw all these stereotypical elements of a Silicon Valley tech company there – bowls of avocados, a massage room for stressed workers…”
It’s not quite the Googleplex, though. The 40 rooms in which the models work are kitted out to cater for a diverse range of fantasies – in addition to the clichéd hot tubs and hotel suites, there’s a fake boardroom, a fake library and a fake Prada store.
It might seem bizarre that anyone would spend money to watch a livestream of themselves being bankrupted, but Maccotta isn’t surprised. “You can expect to find anything in human sexuality,” he says. “What I find so fascinating is how digital technology might be impacting it, but it’s like the chicken and the egg – is human desire being shaped by digital technology, or is technology revealing something about human desire that has always been there?”
“The people in this photo [above] are Studio 20 staff monitoring the cam operations,” explains Maccotta. “It’s not about checking the models are doing the right things, it’s about privacy and ensuring there’s no infraction of the law.” It’s illegal in Romania to have more than one model in a room at a time, although Maccotta says he saw this happen at some smaller studios.
It’s also illegal to stream from studios in Romania to customers in the same country. “This is to protect the models from social judgement,” says Maccotta, stressing that he was non-judgmental about the models and their work. “It’s an Orthodox Christian country and many people, especially the older generation who grew up under Nicolae Ceausescu, might consider the work to be similar to prostitution.”
“This woman [first picture below] is a successful cam model who works from home,” says Maccotta. “Freelancers can earn more money than models working for a studio, but the psychological impact is massive. How do you separate your work life and your home life? The technology is so pervasive.”
Maccotta observed how the models were being affected by spending so much of their lives communicating through adult websites. “What I saw was people whose daily work lives are influencing their behaviour and the way they look,” he says. “For example, some models invest in plastic surgery so they can create a look that they believe works well on screen. The boundaries between representation in a virtual environment and in real life are becoming blurred.”
“This man [pictured bottom-left] is also a freelancer,” says Maccotta of a bodybuilding enthusiast who has been strikingly juxtaposed with the most frail-looking of palm trees. “He’s 33 years old and he’s the owner of two Bucharest studios as well as being a model. The gay market is relatively small but I did meet around nine or ten male models while I was in Romania.”
Webcam studios advertise widely in Romania to attract new employees. This billboard for Lucky Studio in Iasi [pictured below], one of Romania’s largest adult webcam companies, promises wages for models of between 300 and 800 leu (£60 and £160) a day. “The owners and the highest-paid models all told me the same thing,” says Maccotta. “The key to making money is to keep the conversation going. It doesn’t work to take your clothes off quickly – you need to keep the relationship going as long as possible.” Some customers will eat a virtual dinner with the models or virtually “sleep” with them overnight, which can involve up to 12 hours of non-stop paid streaming.
“These models spend their working hours interacting with people from all over the world,” says Maccotta. “Throughout history, geography has played such a large role in everything we do, and now it feels like it’s erased. Take conflict, for example. So much warfare today is conducted by drone. You are killing people in another continent, thousands of miles away, watching it on a screen. How has technology changed the act of killing? It’s a similar kind of quality shift when humans thousands of miles apart can have sexual encounters. How is technology changing human sexuality? It seems that the internet is changing our perceptions of reality and fantasy.”
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