Bénédicte Desrus first visited Casa Xochiquetzal, a shelter for retired sex workers in Mexico City, on an assignment for Elle magazine. She spent three hours there photographing the founder of the shelter, and left quickly thereafter.
But one question haunted the budding photographer: What happens when a sex worker grows old?
Desrus returned to the shelter just one week after her initial visit to find out.
"I really wanted to know these women, I wanted to hear their stories and experiences," Desrus told Revelist.
She asked the women if she could photograph their new lives inside the nondescript, brick shelter. At first, she wanted to photograph all women living there at the time.
She wound up staying nine years.
Casa Xochiquetzal is the only shelter in Latin America exclusively for former sex workers.
Carmen Muñoz founded the shelter in 2006. The former sex worker sought to provide food, shelter, and dignity to the sex workers who were ostracized by society, rejected by their families, and forced to live on the street. Many of sex workers in Mexico are kidnapped as children and sold into prostitution.
Since its founding, the shelter has provided refuge to more than 300 former sex workers.
Applicants to Casa Xochiquetzal must be at least 55 years old and have a history of doing sex work. Once admitted, residents receive medical care, psychiatric care, schooling, and training in marketable skills — as long as they follow the shelter's rules.
The women are expected to attend nightly check-ins and weekly meetings, and perform their assigned chores. Drugs and men are strictly prohibited.
The shelter also helps women obtain government-issued IDs, which gives them access to legal rights and benefits.
Prostitution is decriminalized in Mexico and legal in 13 of its 31 states — including Mexico City. Registration frees sex workers from being harassed by police, and often guarantees them monthly health checks.
Casa Xochiquetzal's residents are permitted to continue working in the sex industry if they choose.
Desrus has now photographed every woman who has lived in or passed by the shelter.
She's channeled her art into dozens of articles and her recent book, "Las Amorosas más bravas." She said she hopes to share what she's learned about these women with the rest of the world.
"I did this photo story to try and dispel some of the discrimination against elderly prostitutes," Desrus told Revelist, "and to show what I learned of their dignity, humor, and spirit."
Desrus said she's been surprised by how open the women are with her.
Many of the women have experienced traumatic life events, and they've candidly recounted them for Desrus while posing for photos.
"They take things day by day," Desrus told Revelist. "They're wise and they're fun, they have active imaginations and they're nobody’s fools. They have a lot to teach us. And to me, they are survivors."
In her nine years at the shelter, Desrus has witnessed some extremely personal moments.
For instance, Desrus watched one of the residents die. The photographer instinctually took out her camera.
"It was an intimate, respectful, and strong photographic moment," she told Revelist. "I knew her, and she was dying, and I kind of photographed her last breath."
At first, the other residents were shocked when Desrus took pictures at such a personal moment. But they understood her intentions after she explained.
"[This is] what the shelter is also about," Desrus said. "[It gives] them peace in [their] old age."
In fact, Desrus said the former sex workers seem no different than anyone else as they approach their final years.
"At this late stage of life, the women's dreams are modest: to reconcile with estranged children and prepare to pass on peacefully," she said. "Thanks to the shelter, they have escaped a fate that they once feared: dying on the streets, anonymous, only to be buried in an unmarked grave."
Donations to Casa Xochiquetzal can be made via their website.