Upon learning of her mother’s terminated pregnancy while in the armed forces, the photographer set to work to reveal an intimate and important experience shared by many.
You don’t have to look far to see the cultural and political forces that thwart women’s reproductive rights. Across the world, millions of women still have no legal access to abortion. Pro-choice laws from America to Poland are currently under threat; and beyond the ongoing debates, abortion stigma endures, even in countries where the procedure is lawful. One in three women in the UK will have an abortion during their lifetime, yet it can still be extremely difficult to talk about.
These assertions were something that recent UWE graduate and 2020 Carte Blanche Laureate Rosie Dale was keen to unpick in her latest series, Ad Astra, which evolved following an intimate conversation she had with her mother. “My mum opened up to me a year ago about an abortion she had in 1990,” Dale explains. “Before this, she had kept it a total secret.”
This poignant moment began a journey that brought Dale closer to her mother and an unspoken part of history. “Talking to my mum about everything going on in the world, while discussing what would be interesting for my final year project, she suggested I could explore the abortion she had 30 years ago. I hadn’t thought of this as it was such a personal experience for her,” she says. “When my mum found out she was pregnant, she had just finished her RAF officer training. Back then it was the Force’s policy to discharge any women from service on the grounds of pregnancy. This left my mum and many servicewomen with an ultimatum; to either terminate their pregnancy or lose their job.”
In total, 5700 women in the UK were dismissed from the armed forces on the grounds of pregnancy between 1978 and 1990. “My mum loved her years in the RAF and would go back in a heartbeat,” Dale says. “She doesn’t regret her choice, but it has been a struggle, with part of her decision made for fear of losing her job.”
Ad Astra brings together different photographic approaches, “as a way for my mum to finally open up about her experience, helping to lift some of the guilt she has carried, leading me to better understand the relationship I hold with her,” Dale explains.
From walks on the beaches and moors of Cornwall to a visit to RAF Benson a week before national lockdown, Dale focused on symbolism to express her mother’s story. “We would talk about the abortion and how she felt about it then and now. I tried to channel this into my photographs,” she says. Water ebbs and flows through Ad Astra, representing for Dale and her mother the passage of time and peace. Rhythmic and tender, Dale’s images build on the emotive presence of her mum’s decision, the confusion and courage, followed by clarity and relief.
“‘Ad Astra’ is part of the RAF’s motto, which translates as ‘to the stars’,” Dale explains. “I thought this was a lovely way to sum up the work as it reflects that feeling of hope and moving on. Even though Ad Astra touches on a very sensitive subject, it’s ultimately about getting past adversity and pushing through to the other side.
“I hope the work sheds light on how women are mistreated, but more significantly, I hope it opens up the conversation around abortion and allows greater visibility to better understand it, no matter what your view.”
Charlotte Harding is a writer, creative consultant and editor of More This, a sustainable sourcebook for doing good, based in London.
She has been writing for British Journal of Photography since 2014, and graduated in 2016 with an MA in Visual Anthropology at Goldsmiths, UoL. Her work is published on various arts and culture platforms, including AnOther, TOAST and Noon Magazine.