HOW do you navigate visualising one of the world’s most stigmatised issues? Conceptualised through the lens of Spanish-photographer Laia Abril, her collection On Abortion aims to do so by providing a voice for silenced women. Created in a series of images and short excerpts of testimonies, the stories of these women can be felt everywhere in the collection, and the work is permeated with their experiences. Capturing the devastation and trauma tied to abortion, particularly in countries where there is no access to a safe and legal procedure, Abril presents a comprehensive deconstruction of misogynistic practice through the collection.
The work has been published in Abril’s book On Abortion in 2017, and has exhibited across the globe, from Paris to Croatia. Now shortlisted for The Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize, the exhibition is a chapter within her larger project, A History of Misogyny, an ongoing artistic interpretation of the worlds treatment of women as second-class citizens. Taking testimonies from around the world, from Poland to Chile, the collection acts as an uncomfortable reminder of the uncertainty of women’s access to legal abortions, especially in consideration of the current alt-right political backlash which pervades our culture. However, it should be noted, as urged by Abril, the collection is not only relevant in our contemporary post Me-Too setting, but is an issue which has always been relevant to women.
Laia Abril, Illegal Instrument Kit, 2018
Exploring Abril’s collection On Abortion, you’ll experience more than a comprehensive summary of abortions history. Coloured with the voices of women world-wide, Abril’s collection is as emotive and mediative as it is factual. Abril makes her viewpoint clear, telling Glass she is not a journalist, a historian, or an academic, but an artist. The collection is rendered through an artist’s eye, a historical exploration of global female trauma. On Abortion speaks for the 47,000 women plus who die each year as consequence of not having access to safe and legal abortions. Most importantly, the women whose stories fuel the collection are not captured as victims, but instead survivors of misogynistic regime.
After seeing the short-listed projects for the The Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize at The Photographers’ Gallery, Glass sat down with Abril to discuss the project.
Laia Abril, Portrait of Marta, 29, Poland
So your collection On Abortion is part of a bigger on going project On Misogyny, and your next chapter is focused on rape culture, yes?
I’m still deciding on the title. It will be on rape for sure, I’m just not sure anymore whether it will be on rape culture. Definitely rape culture is an important part of it, but then I started to learn more about it, it’s definitely going to be about the broken system, and about the origin of the laws, and the current laws, and rape culture has a very big role to play in that. I’m still in the middle of it so it’s difficult for me to talk about.
Rape’s quite a tricky topic as well to capture, because it is very stigmatised and quite side-lined, hasn’t it throughout history?
It’s terrible. And the repercussions are most of the time psychological, so it’s very difficult to visualise it. Also if you want to tackle the structure and the system, it’s very intangible and very stigmatised, but also at the same time extremely painful. On Abortion isn’t easy either, of course I guess I’m just used to it, but in a way rape is more devastating.
So you were saying you’ve got used to it, do you feel like the project has kind of numbed you?
It gets worse every time. I always thought it was going to get better, but it’s the opposite. It might also be that the subjects that I’m approaching are getting harder and harder, and that doesn’t help, but also I get tired. I struggle, and people ask me how do you cope with it, but I don’t, there’s no way. Talking about it really helps, and spreading the word out and making sense of it, the book and the show, and people reading the stories, it’s kind of like a way to heal collectively. That helps.
So, how do you feel abortion and rape relates to the female experience?
That’s a great question. It’s difficult to answer for me because I haven’t decided yet what connections I’m going to make. There’s a lot of rape in the projects, On Abortion is about the repercussions of not having access to legal abortions, and I focus on the countries with more restrictions, and one of the laws in the UN is that we should all have access to abortion if you have been raped. But there’s plenty of stories of people being raped, and also not being able to have an abortion. So, that’s already a very straightforward connection, but there is many more layers of circumstance of not being able to protect of have say over your own body, and all the violence that surrounds it. It’s a similar kind of violence to sexual violence, it’s all very similar actually.
Laia Abril, Hippocratic Betrayal, 2018
How difficult was it to conceptualise and capture an issue like abortion, especially on the scale you have done?
It was strange because the project was first run as an installation, and then it was a book, and I did most of the content in nine months which is kind of crazy. It was a massive immersionof research and understanding, but when I understood the approach to visualise the repercussions it was easier. What was harder was trying to find the testimonies, because it was extremely stigmatised, it still is, but at this time it was pre Me-Too movement, so that also had effects. It’s also hard because rape is so visual, and it’s not just stigmatised it’s also illegal, so it was dangerous to show certain things.
All visuals were triggered by the content, so that’s why you can find that art installations, or video installations, or reconstructions, and objects, because I found I needed to find any media at my service to make people curious to continue reading because it’s also a very hard subject. It was kind of a strategic perspective, because it was my goal to make people say as much as possible.
You created it before the Me-Too movement?
Yes, I’ve been working on women’s right since 10 years ago, so I first work on eating disorders and the LGBT community. It was after that I wanted to make a more structured project on misogyny with this umbrella of a historical point of view, in some years people will say this is something that happened in the past, it’s not true. I was trying to show people and face those kind of stereotypes, I made the project in 2015, we showed it for the first time in 2016, and the book was published in 2018.
It took a bit longer because to write a book about abortion is a major thing, but yeah it was pre Me-Too movement, but it was also pre Trump campaign. Trump and the proposal of the restrictions of law in Spain, triggered for me to make abortion the first chapter. I saw the rise of right-wing politics was going to affect directly, because it’s happened already historically. So, when people ask me if I knew it was going to be so relevant, I’m like it’s always been relevant that’s the point of the project. One of the worst laws in the world, which is the law in El Salvador, you can be dying and not have access to abortion. It’s from 1998, so when people see these things and they don’t understand, it is definitely connected to political movements, so unfortunately we’re leaning towards a more restrictive situation in many countries.
Yeah, obviously there has been a huge right-wing backlash to the Me-Too movement, but do you think the movement itself has shifted people’s view of abortions more towards the left at all?
I don’t know about abortion specifically, it’s more about rape and feminism in general. I guess it depends on the country, it had an influence in Argentina and maybe Northern Ireland, I can’t really say that much. I can speak from my own experience of working with female issues, It seems like I’m more allowed to talk about things, the stories I want to tell make the covers of the magazines, which they should because there are people dying. But, it seems it’s not important when it’s women and it’s connected to abortion, it seems I’m not able to talk about things without people going ugh, which is what I’m used to getting. It was incredible.
At the same time, my problem with the Me-Too movement is that it’s like a band-aid, sometimes the reaction is to put a band-aid. Especially with these week, with international women’s day, how many people pretended they are fixing or making a statement by doing very little things. I think that’s problematic. But, it’s a massive global movement, so there are things that are positive and things that are not positive, so it’s difficult to judge.
What kind of spurred you to create the chapter? Was there a moment when you were like I need to focus on this in particular?
It’s different with each project. With abortion it was about finding things, it’s difficult to find many things. With rape it’s about filtering things, because it is such a massive epidemic, and understanding which of the ones do I wanna tell because I can’t tell all of them. Why I’m choosing which ones I’m still figuring out. With abortion, as I say it was easier when I decided to focus on the repercussions, because it could be on many things. Abortions is a very broad project.
Once I had that angle, it was easy, it was a month to understand my role in all of this, I’m not a historian, I’m not a humanitarian, as an artist what I can do, what I can offer. For me, it was about finding the testimonies, from different places, different women, showing them as survivors not as victims. Giving some factual information to some people who might be in a grey area, maybe some people don’t agree with people having abortions but then they have to face the consequences, because the more illegal you make it the more dangerous it is.
If you are a pro-life person them maybe you don’t want people dying, and we’re talking about 47,000 women every year at least. And women in prison, terrible, terrible things. It was important for me to have these pieces in this mental conversation with the public and then showing this and hopefully making people reflect after receiving information they didn’t know before.
Laia Abril, Abortion Stories: Magda 008, 2018
You were saying the collection is very factual, and I found that going through it there is a lot of stuff I didn’t know and probably a lot of stuff most people wouldn’t know about the history.
I didn’t know myself, yeah.
So, how did you go about doing research?
Yeah, it’s a research based project. It’s a particular way of doing research, it’s not the same kind that is done by an academic or a doctor. It’s a weird combination of methodology and research, because my background is in journalism, I worked in a very strange place called Colors Magazine and it was a very special way of doing research I learned there. It’s a combination of facts that I think if people knew would actually think differently, and understanding which of those facts are important to present and visualise, to make people connect with them.
The research is very factual, but the images are not. The images have a lot of intention, and they are made in that particular way because I want people to react in a particular way. It is factual on a level, and it’s not at the same time. It’s always based on facts, because it’s always based on reality, but that doesn’t mean it’s a journalistic project, because it’s not. It’s an artistic project because I have an intention, but I work with reality because it triggers that kind of calling of whatever, to talk about these things which for me are very urgent to do, and are often not approached.
Quite a lot of the collection is about contraception, like the history of condoms, do you think contraception contributes a lot to the meaning of the project?
Historically, we didn’t have abortions. It’s a little complicated to answer, but women have been trying to control pregnancy forever. It’s always been like that. It was very dangerous, we didn’t have until very recently pregnancy tests, so you didn’t know you were pregnant until you were very pregnant. And when that happens, they would try to use coat-hangers, well that is more recent, but anything pointy, and that was very dangerous.
For centuries, people would give their children away for someone to take care of it, that was the most common control, which is brutal. The first abortion methods started last century, not that long time ago. Which is were illegal abortions started, obviously contraception is connected, it’s all about controlling when you want to be a mother and when you don’t want to be a mother. And it’s connected to technology, the better technology we have the easier it gets, even now I can use a condom or use a coil, that’s fantastic because it is less dangerous. But, there is a lot of things you cannot control.
Countries which restrict contraception, what about rape, what about accidents, what about whatever? What when people have problems and cannot even have abortions when they have problems with the fetus, it is connected, being able to choose when you are able to be a mother or not.
by Emma Hart
The Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize 2019 is now on show at The Photographers’ Gallery London until June 2 with winner announced on May 16, 2019.