Abortion is not a photogenic subject. By photogenic, I mean ‘easy to picture’, ‘aesthetic’ or, at least, ‘eye-catching’. Actually, the first image that may come to your mind at the mention of ‘abortion’ is an ultrasound image of a foetus or its more graphic declination: photographs of mutilated foetuses, which is one of the common communication tools of the pro-life side. However, those images are not a fair representation of the abortion issue in Ireland.
Firstly, because they are often misleading: for instance when you can spot limbs in such pictures, you can be sure the photo represents an embryo of at least 8 weeks, whereas 2/3 of the legal abortion procedures in Great Britain and in France take place before the 9th week of pregnancy – before the embryo reaches the size of a grape and before you can technically call it a foetus. Not that this solves the scientific and philosophical debate on ‘where life starts’, but let’s be fair when using images in such a sensitive debate.
Secondly, this kind of cliché eclipses a crucial figure of the abortion issue: the woman who cannot access abortion care in their own country and the pain she consequently endures.
This acknowledgement of one’s pain is tightly connected to the acknowledgment of one’s right to be protected from that pain – whether you think such pain belongs to the unborn or the women. The fact is women’s pain is a tricky subject to visualize: how do you illustrate the mental distress a woman can feel when facing a pregnancy she cannot take upon herself? How do you show the shame, loneliness and anxiety brought by having to travel overseas to terminate it? How do you picture the inner, physical and mental pain you can go through when having an abortion, especially in secrecy, with post-care being complicated? The silence surrounding abortion in Ireland echoes the visual blackout of women’s pain.
Adjusting the focus to capture women’s pain
However, some attempts have been successful in adjusting the focus. I think of the X-ile project, which has been portraying women who travelled to England for an abortion since December 2016. This online gallery started with 11 portraits that represented the average daily number of women doing so and now gathers more than 50 portraits. Though most of the women pictured are smiling at you, they are all giving ‘a much-needed face to those have effectively been exiled and ignored due to unduly restrictive and oppressive abortion laws‘, as stated by the founders.
When I first heard about the X-ile project, I immediately thought of a similar initiative held in France in 1971, three years before abortion was legalised: the Manifesto of the 343. Written by the famous feminist Simone de Beauvoir, signed by 343 female celebrities and published in a renowned national paper, it stated: ‘I declare that I have had an abortion. Just as we demand free access to contraception, we demand the freedom to have an abortion‘. The week after, the satirical paper Charlie Hebdo (yes, the one aimed at by the terrorist attack in 2015) nicknamed it ‘Manifesto of the 343 Sluts‘… a label that unexpectedly served the popularity of the Manifesto.
What struck me is that both this Manifesto and the X-ile project subvert the way the judicial system stigmatizes alleged criminals to better call for public engagement. Let me explain: cataloguing deviant people has always been a way for institutions to strengthen their control, for better or for worse. Turning such a catalogue into a petition is a powerful gesture. The X-ile project even accentuated the effect by using portraits instead of signatures, turning the traditionally repressive ‘wanted’ posters into honorific ‘claiming’ posters.
One of the photograph involved, Emma Campbell, is actually one of the first Irish photographers to have dedicated her art and research ‘to insert positive, strong images of women into the discourse surrounding abortion’ in her own words. You can check out the Butterfly project, featuring the portraits of women activists, and her series When they put their hands out like scales that aesthetically depicts the usual journey Irish women take to abortion clinics in England when choosing to end their pregnancies.
The ‘journey to England’ trope has been revisited with a more factual – but nonetheless committed – stance on August 2016 by @twowomentravel. You may have come across the live-twitter feed ‘a women and her friend’ held while travelling to England for an abortion in England, addressing each post to Enda Kenny, with some of their shots being shared up to 3,000 times.
One of the most evocative photographs I recall from their series shows the stained sheets where ‘a woman’ slept after the procedure. This is one of the most graphic representations of this pain I’ve seen regarding the abortion issue. It made me think of the Rupi Kaur series on menstruations and its controversial reception (women’s blood has actually always been more complex to show than men’s), it made me think of the ‘dirty linen’ phrase, which of course has a particular echo in Ireland with the history of the Magdalene Laundries.
‘Activists display media in order to produce social change’
The X-ile project, the @twowomen series and some other initiatives to empower women through photography made me realise the crucial role of social media in displaying photographs to a broader audience, potentially triggering sympathy for one’s cause. Obviously, photography associated with social media has the power to foster solidarity and to effectively network a social movement such as the pro-choice movement (this can also be applied to the pro-life movement). My only concern is about the filter bubble and echo chamber effects, which both tend to reinforce one’s own opinion with no regard to that of others, skewing a much-needed democratic debate on this issue.
As scholar Meg McLagan argues: ‘activists display media in order to produce social change (…) they are collectors, filterers, translator, and presenters of information regarding human rights violation’. Yes, the abortion debate is a human rights issue as much as a social, political and philosophical debate. In this regard, bearing witness for those who suffer (whether you think it’s the unborn babies or the women) and recording what someday will be historical memory is of crucial importance. The way you shoot, share and show the reality of the 8th amendment has a democratic value. So does the way you choose to look at others’ testimonies.
A coathanger from Laia Abril’s History of Misogyny Photography
Photo Credit: Laia Abril/Institute
The Spanish artist Laia Abril led one of the most comprehensive works I came across recently. She travelled the world to document the repercussions of lack of access to abortion. Her exhibition ‘’On Abortion’’ will be part of the Photo Ireland Festival 2018 running 4-31 May at the Copper House Gallery.
Mélanie Brisard – Features Writer