LAS VEGAS — Jonnie Andersen best understands things by gazing through her camera lens. She photographed her co-workers at a casino. She photographed her boss while he was firing her for photographing her co-workers.
Then Jonnie, small-town-bred and Ivy League-educated, started bartending at a saloon at the intersection of downtown's gentrification and grit. She got to know the prostitutes who hung out there -- and felt she had to photograph them too.
They sat on barstools at the Bunkhouse next to writers and artists, trading tales over drinks. Some women were middle-aged, nearly toothless, with scarred necks and wrists and haunting stares; others were waifs fresh from the bus stop. Some were strong. Some were hustlers. They were all unlike anyone she'd ever known.
In taking their pictures for nearly two years, Jonnie found a sense of purpose in a city steeped in vice. To friends and family, the project seemed risky, even bizarre. Methamphetamine and crack had eaten away many of the women's teeth and lucidity, and listening to their hard-knock stories wore Jonnie down.
But Jonnie, 32, came to believe that the photo sessions gave the women a welcome, if brief, escape. She offered them $20 for their time but some refused the money. They wanted only copies of their head shots, in which their tousled hair and reddened lips gave them an air of glamour. Their bruises were nearly masked with makeup.
A full moon hovers over downtown as Jonnie walks into the Western Casino. She's wearing a brown zip-up sweater and silver earrings; a highlighted bob frames her heart-shaped face. She is jittery despite tossing back a few shots of Jagermeister: So many things could go wrong.
She and two friends scan the crowd for a curvy woman with a cocoa complexion, red lips and a dyed-blond weave. Earlier in the night, someone told them she was a prostitute and that she was headed to this casino. The woman is in the lobby. She says her name is Charlene and she's from Omaha; she laughs when asked her age. Her eyes are glassy and her gestures wild.
"We want to take your picture," says Jonnie's roommate, Marissa DiNicola, 29.
"Take my picture, take my picture!" Charlene shrieks. She walks with the group to the nearby Travelers Motel, a string of salmon-colored buildings on Fremont Street where Jonnie has reserved Room 25.
It's two days before Christmas, and Jonnie and Marissa have pieced together a kitschy holiday scene. There are boxes wrapped in red glitter paper and a gold-tinsel tree adorned with bubble lights and candy canes. The roommates affixed stockings to the window with duct tape. They wanted to bring fake snow, but their Chihuahua, Alice Cooper, urinated on it.
Charlene is handed a Santa hat and jacket; her scarf dangles out of the jacket like a tail. She shakes her hair and grabs her breasts and says, "These ain't no fakes!" She twirls and shimmies, and everyone is laughing, even Jonnie, who's peering through her camera.
"You guys are making fun of me for real," Charlene says.
"We love you," Marissa says. "We have your better interests in mind."
Another friend, Mingo Collaso, 27, is waving a light reflector to flutter Charlene's hair. "Oh, that is so hot," he says. "Keep it right there. Give it to her. Wait till your kids see the pictures. They're going to say, 'Who's that top model?' "
A buoyant Charlene plops on a faux fur rug. Jonnie hands the camera to Mingo and tries to show Charlene how to pose. Charlene crawls on top of Jonnie to perch the Santa hat on her head.
"I love it," Jonnie says.
The session ends abruptly: Charlene stands up and says she has to go. Jonnie decides Charlene isn't lucid enough to sign a release allowing Jonnie to use the photos in a book. Mingo escorts Charlene back to the casino, and Jonnie and Marissa duck outside to smoke.
Every time the women leave, they linger in Jonnie's thoughts. She wonders what landed Charlene here and what drugs might be fogging her mind. Where does she sleep? In her car? Charlene repeatedly said she kept a Bible in her back seat.
"This is so hard on me," Jonnie says.
Jonnie grew up in Superior, Neb. -- population 1,800 -- where her stepfather farmed corn and wheat and her mom worked with special education students. When Jonnie got in trouble, she had to haul hay. She dreamed of becoming a fashion designer in New York, but ended up at the University of Nebraska, and after graduation moved to Las Vegas because it was nothing like home. She worked as a waitress and bought her first nice camera with a $1,500 tip. She left to pursue a master's degree in photography at Yale.
Three years ago, she returned to Las Vegas, where she juggled several part-time jobs, including tending bar and taking photos at Glamour Shots. Her clients mainly wanted head shots for online dating services or pictures to give to soldiers heading overseas.
"I kept thinking there was a project I had to finish here," Jonnie says, "but I didn't know what it was."