The fight for women’s freedoms: Looking back at history through photography

Miss D'vine II 2007 © Courtesy of the Artist and Stevenson, Cape Town/Johannesburg and Yancey Richardson, New York, Zanele Muholi

Article from the British Journal of Photography written by Gem Fletcher

Nearly 60 years after the women’s liberation movement, women’s rights over their bodies are still pendular. Bodily autonomy is under constant threat. Despite the active dismantling of the gender binary and the affirmation of trans lives, mainstream culture is only just beginning to push beyond European standards of beauty historically grounded in the expectations of the cis, white, hetero male gaze. Power and control over women (the use of terms woman and female in this piece is intended to include all cis, non-binary, trans women, and any other person who identifies as a woman) are not limited to the physicality of their bodies, but also their capability and what they can do and express.

In our current climate, photography often describes itself as a force for liberation while remaining the loyal subject of state power. Long after Susan Sontag referred to the camera as a weapon in Regarding the Pain of Others (2003), the visibility of women continues to be radicalised from the omnipresent sexist policies upheld by social media to the potent visual strategies of the anti-abortion movement. Arguably, matters have barely changed. Sharpened by a global pandemic and a world that embraces more conservative ideology every day, we are left wondering what can photography really do? How are contemporary artists using photography to continue the fight for women’s freedoms? And is it possible to reclaim that power?

Laia Abril’s On Abortion (2015), part of her series A History of Misogyny, is a gut-wrenching exploration of the repercussions of not having access to safe, free and legal abortion. Every year 68,000 women around the world die due to botched, illegal procedures. Those who survive risk imprisonment or exile from their community, while millions are forced to continue their pregnancy against their will.

Abril’s research took her worldwide, investigating issues from the history of birth control to dangerous DIY methods women have used for centuries. She collected harrowing personal testimonies from survivors and learned of the violence inflicted on abortion providers. Through complex visual strategies that borrow from ethnography, journalism and social science, Abril maps how patriarchal institutions have long controlled female fertility.

What ignites the work is the ways in which Abril plays with ideas of perception and time. This methodology illustrates the public’s detachment and apathy around this urgent threat to women’s freedom.

“Proving to people that their perceptions were wrong became central,” Abril explains. “People were telling me, especially in Spain, that these problems belong in the past or other countries. I knew from my research that this was not true. My reaction was to dispel these myths and show them that these restrictions could happen tomorrow, anywhere.” Abortion rights are a thermometer of a country’s democracy, and the work articulates how deeply entrenched women’s bodily autonomy is with political strategy and power.

On Abortion is part of a new exhibition, Reproductive: Health, Fertility, Agency, on show at the Museum of Contemporary Photography in Chicago. The show directly confronts the history relating to women’s reproductive health, which has long been shrouded in shame, affected by bad science and discrimination. The near-silence in our culture around miscarriage, menstruation, menopause and how that affects a multiplicity of intersecting identities has either been overtly politicised or rendered invisible.

The exhibition, curated by Karen Irvine and Kristin Taylor, features seven other artists: Krista Franklin, Candy Guinea, Candice Breitz, Elinor Carucci, Doreen Garner, Carmen Winant and Joanne Leonard. Each one explores the psychological, physical and emotional realities of how the female body has long been a site of injustice.

“It’s a deeply political issue, and the more research you do, the angrier you get,” Irvine says. “It became important for the exhibition to call out the suppression of women’s basic human rights by male authoritarian leaders that exist in all different types of societies. It was vital for us to think about the links to capitalism and the labour force and how reproductive health is tied to all of those political concerns.”

The exhibition opens with Carmen Winant’s work, A History of My Pleasure (2019-20), which recognises that women’s historical lack of autonomy over their bodies is inextricably linked to sexuality. “Female pleasure has always been a threat to the patriarchy,” Irvine reflects. “It has been misrepresented both in science and popular culture and is directly related to all the issues around reproductive justice. It’s where it all begins.”

Winant assembles hundreds of images, found in publications and journals produced during the 1970s feminist movement, that collectively shift our perception of what pleasure looks like. The photographs describe sexuality, sensuality and touch in myriad forms. They present the female body as one able to enjoy sex and hold power simultaneously, in direct opposition to forces seeking to politicise and subdue a woman’s libido. Taylor adds, “Winant’s work is equally about sensuality as it is about taking the idea of pleasure away from the objectification of the female body in the forms that we normally see it.”

Other works on show include Franklin’s book project Under the Knife (2018). It details her relationship to her body after a long struggle with uterine fibroids, a condition known to cause infertility and one that disproportionately affects Black women. There is also Mariposa (2017), a film by Guinea that depicts the heteronormative childbirth industry from the perspective of a queer Latinx couple.

“This work is so personal,” Taylor explains. “Most of the artists in the show had to take a leap to make work that they may be judged for, that may not sell or that carries the risk of never being exhibited. In curating this show, we have seen that there is a huge audience for this work. People are so relieved to finally see these experiences expressed visually and talked about.”

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