After discovering an old manual in her parents’ house, the Australian-British photographer began to consider the visual and literal language used in the farming industry
“So much of my art-making practice, and myself as a person, relies on the things I learned growing up in that environment,” says Odette England. “The idea of never throwing anything away, being industrious, being resourceful, and being part of a community where, if something went wrong for someone, you all pitched in to help. There are principles and morals and ideals I have from growing up in that community that I’m very grateful for. At the same time, because I really know that community, I feel comfortable criticising it.”
England grew up on a 200-acre dairy farm in southern Australia, which her family lost to near-bankruptcy in 1989. She’s now based in New York, but the farm is a subject she returns to repeatedly, often collaborating with her parents. Often this work is open-ended, she says, based on “some attraction to an object or place”.
Her photographs of her daughter are a case in point. Shot over five years on her parents’ former land, these images re-enact moments from England’s past. The project began organically, without structure, until she went back to Australia in January 2020 and found a dusty old manual under her parents’ stairs.
The manual belonged to her father, and was a farmer’s guide to a confirmation assessment – a term used by farmers to describe and assess the physicality of dairy cows. Flicking through the pages she found “nasty dot-grained, black-and-white photographs of cows” focusing on their udders, vaginas, legs and rumps. Text describing the animals used terms that are “sexist, derogatory, and similar to the language used in pornography. I thought, ‘That’s it!’” says England. “That’s the thing that anchors all of this work I’ve been making.”
We speak as she is finalising the dummy of the resulting book, Dairy Character, which is due to be published this autumn and exhibited at the Silver Eye Center for Photography in Pittsburgh in May. Dairy Character combines text and illustrations from the confirmation assessment manual with England’s photographs of her daughter, plus written stories about her childhood, family snapshots, and images of female calves taken by her father for official documents. The images are reproduced in delicate tones; England also interlaces blush-coloured papers in the book. But the content is uncomfortable, centring on extreme close-ups which suggest a reductive way of seeing both cows and women. It is a subversive look at the literal and visual language of farming.
“When you focus on these aspects, day in, day out, it has to affect how you look at females more generally. It’s how farmers talk about women and their daughters: ‘Wow, you’re looking a bit wide in the rump today.’ That’s the way they speak.”
“The ways in which cows are presented in this manual is very invasive,” says England. “They focus on the parts of the body that relate to production and reproduction, and the parts that aren’t as interesting are removed. You very rarely see photographs of the head or face in any way. When I’ve been photographing my daughter, I’ve been thinking about how the rest of the body is cut off, and I’ve thought a lot about what it means to hide the face.
“Looking at this manual from my dad’s point of view, he would focus on these parts of the body in a practical, logistical manner,” England explains. “But when you focus on these aspects, day in, day out, it has to affect how you look at females more generally. It’s how farmers talk about women and their daughters: ‘Wow, you’re looking a bit wide in the rump today.’ That’s the way they speak.”
It’s a perspective that communicates a certain objectification – one that allowed cows to become objects and therefore property, and maybe women too. In England’s farming community, cows were literally owned – her father referred to the herd as ‘my girls’ – and were also classed as units of production, their milk yield logged on spreadsheets. Women supported men via the unpaid labour of housework and child-rearing, and lived on land that passed from father to son – a position that rendered them economic dependents.
While it might sound extreme, the idea that there’s something similar in the position of women and cattle is central to Carol J Adams’ seminal book from 1990, The Sexual Politics of Meat. This book links the literal consumption of animals with the sexual consumption of women, and argues that objectification is central to the process for both. “Objectification permits an oppressor to view another being as an object,” the author explains. “Once objectified, a being can be fragmented. Once fragmented, consumption happens.” The front cover shows a woman divided as on a butcher’s chart, the various sections labelled ‘rump’, ‘breast’ and more.
The Sexual Politics of Meat has recently been republished, but it’s a book England has returned to often over the years, and, as she points out, its argument means Dairy Character is relevant to all patriarchal western societies, despite being rooted in her own history and even her own family’s archive of books and photographs. “I’m thinking about rural females, but the ‘rural’ could be subbed out,” she says. “That’s just the frame I felt knowledgeable talking about, but really it’s how women are looked at, talked about, and thought about.”
Diane Smyth is a freelance journalist who contributes to publications such as The Guardian, The Observer, The FT Weekend Magazine, Creative Review, The Calvert Journal, Aperture, FOAM, IMA, Aesthetica and Apollo Magazine. Prior to going freelance, she wrote and edited at BJP for 15 years. She has also curated exhibitions for institutions such as The Photographers Gallery and Lianzhou Foto Festival. You can follow her on instagram @dismy