A violent attack in Spain galvanised Laia Abril to begin the next episode in her project highlighting stigmatised issues
This article was published in issue #7892 of British Journal of Photography. Visit the BJP Shop to purchase the magazine here.
In the early hours of 07 July 2016, during the famous bull-running festival in Pamplona, northern Spain, five men offered to safely escort an 18-year-old woman to her car. They led her into the hallway of a building, attacked her, robbed her, and raped her, filming the attack on their phones, then sharing the footage on a WhatsApp group they called ‘la Manada’ – ‘the Wolf Pack’. After the victim was found traumatised in the hall, the men were arrested and the case brought to court in Pamplona, the capital of Spain’s Navarre region. Yet the men’s defence lawyers used the 96 seconds of video footage from the defendants’ phones – showing the woman immobile and terrified, her eyes shut – to argue that she was, in fact, engaging in consensual sex. The trial became a cross- examination of the 18-year-old woman, rather than the men who attacked her.
In her closing statement, the prosecuting lawyer, Elena Sarasate, said to the court: “The defendants want us to believe, on that night they met an 18-year-old girl, living a normal life, who, after 20 minutes of conversation with people she didn’t know, agreed to group sex involving every type of penetration, sometimes simultaneously.” The men were acquitted of gang rape and convicted instead of the ‘non- violent or intimidating’ crime of ‘sexual abuse’. One of the judges presiding over the trial argued that the men should have been cleared of all charges except the theft of the woman’s phone. After sustained protests across Spain over the course of three years, the Spanish Supreme Court eventually reversed the lower court and affirmed on 21 June 2019 that the men were guilty of rape.
Laia Abril’s family hail from the Basque Country, in the north of Spain. The case in Pamplona inspired the Barcelona-based artist to create her new body of work, On Rape, the second part of her ongoing series, A History of Misogyny, which is set to go on show at Galerie Les Filles du Calvaire in Paris from 25 January to 22 February. “The series focuses on miscarriages of justice,” Abril tells BJP. “It is a search for the origin of the myths and misconceptions that prevail around the concept on rape.” More directly, the series is about: “The victim-blaming discourse that has spread, like a virus, into all our collective and individual sub-consciousness.”
The first chapter of Abril’s long-term project, On Abortion, won the Paris Photo- Aperture Foundation PhotoBook of the Year Award 2018 and saw her shortlisted for the 2019 Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize after it made its premiere at Rencontres d’Arles festival in 2016 – concurrently with the events in Pamplona. On Abortion was multivalent, consisting of images detailing the desperate methods women have repeatedly used to self-abort in countries where the practice is illegal. To embellish the series further, alongside portraits and personal testimonies, Abril included photographs of items that feature in the long history of abortion, such as the desiccated lumps of crocodile dung used by women in Ancient Egypt.
Abril first trained to be a journalist in Barcelona, before studying at New York’s International Centre of Photography. From there, she landed a staff job as a researcher and photo editor at the lauded Colors magazine, which, Abril says, taught her “to develop an understanding of a series of storytelling platforms in which design, production, image and text go hand-in-hand”. She worked closely with Ramon Pez, the magazine’s art director, who is now regarded as one of the best photobook designers in Europe. “We translated the methodology we learned at the magazine into bookmaking and storytelling,” Abril says.
“We speak of rape as if it is a female topic, for only us to discuss. It’s not. It’s a man issue. And it is everybody’s problem”
In 2016, she decided to develop a broad conceptual umbrella – A History of Misogyny – which derives from a need “to tell the most uncomfortable, hidden, stigmatised and misunderstood stories,” Abril says. On Rape aims to identify and challenge the institutionalised rape culture that was so horrifically on display in Pamplona. “I’m exploring how concepts of myths, power, and law relate to the constructions of the notion of masculinity and sexual violence,” Abril writes in the project’s opening statement. She intends to do this by employing the research and slow journalism skills learned at Colors – “by scrutinising, conceptualising and visualising diverse miscarriages of justice across historical regulations, toxic dynamics and victims’ testimonies”.
In November 2018 Amnesty International released a report that analysed rape legislation in 31 countries across Europe. The study found that only eight of those countries have consent-based definitions of rape. The vast majority only recognise rape when physical violence, threat or coercion is involved. In addition, and according to the most recent survey from the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights, one in 20 women living in the EU has been raped since the age of 15. That equates to about nine million women in Europe alone. How, in what is supposed to be the most civilised continent on earth, is this problem so endemic?
The issue relates, Abril says, to our continuing willingness to put the victim on trial, rather than the perpetrators. “Society keeps putting the responsibility on the victims – telling them to ‘not get raped’,” Abril says. “I can list several recent cases all over the world where the victim was being the one judged – by the media, the police, the doctors or during the actual trial; because she was drunk, because she was wearing a thong, because she didn’t struggle enough or call for help.”
The act of rape does not lend itself to a photography exhibition. Yet Abril approached the series with the same research- based and journalistic rigour so apparent in On Abortion. The series, for example, includes a stately image of the wedding dress worn by Alina, a 21-year-old student of Bishkek’s Arabaev University, who was the victim of ala kachuu, a form of bride kidnapping still practised in Kyrgyzstan. Abril’s image appears alongside Alina’s story, reported in direct quotes. Alina aspired to be a fashion designer, but was essentially forced, on the basis of tradition, to marry a stranger after he kidnapped her.
“I remember happily baking the day before, then I went to visit my sister and on the way home I was ravished,” Alina told Abril. “When my family arrived at the kidnapper’s home, my mother wanted to bring me back, but my grandmother asked me not to disgrace my family, especially after my sister had run away and people in the village had talked about it for a long time. I began crying, but my grandmother begged me to stay there. So I did.”
Abril uses Alina’s story to make a broader point about rape within the context of marriage. “Marriage has been both the curse and the solution for rape since the beginning of times,” Abril says. “A married woman could not really be raped, since she was owned by her husband. In fact, the origin of rape was always an offence to the male members of the family – rather than to the victim. It was talked of as a robbery of the husband or the father, if the victim was not yet engaged. Marriage was then the ultimate solution – women were forced to marry their rapist.”
Abril also presents a photograph of the military fatigues worn by Meredith, an American soldier who was coerced into a sexual relationship with her commanding officer. Abril reports Meredith’s pain of admitting to herself she is a victim of rape, and the struggle to realise she is not responsible for the actions of a stronger, more powerful man. “It was a terrifying relief to finally speak aloud the shame that had festered inside me for so long,” Meredith told Abril. “But what really set me free was when one of the female leaders looked me in the eye and told me that it was not my fault.”
Abril includes an image of a cilicio, a type of undergarment made from animal hair and twigs, and associated with puritanical Christianity as a self-imposed means of repentance and mortification of the flesh, and a steel chastity belt. It remains unclear as to whether these belts were actually used, but this “anti-temptation” device can be traced back to the Crusades.
Working with such violent and trauma- laden material has had a huge impact on Abril’s personal life. “The final presentation, this time, is more connected to a personal reaction,” she says. “I felt I had become overwhelmed by the systemic problem. The project was an attempt to find some order in the chaos.” So what does Abril hope that the viewer will take away faced with this inarguable collection of artefacts of collective failure towards victims of rape? “We speak of rape as if it is a female topic, for only us to discuss. It’s not. It’s a man issue. And it is everybody’s problem,” she says.
Tom Seymour is a Correspondent for The Art Newspaper and an Associate Lecturer at London College of Communication. His words have been published in The Guardian, The Observer, The New York Times, Financial Times, Wallpaper*, BBC, The Telegraph, CNN, Independent, Foam, New Statesman, Wired, Vice and The Royal Photographic Society Journal, for whom he won Writer of the Year at the PPA Awards 2020.