Nearly 60 years after the women’s liberation movement, women’s rights over their bodies are still pendular. Bodily autonomy is under constant threat. Despite the active dismantling of the gender binary and the affirmation of trans lives, mainstream culture is only just beginning to push beyond European standards of beauty historically grounded in the expectations of the cis, white, hetero male gaze. Power and control over women (the use of terms woman and female in this piece is intended to include all cis, non-binary, trans women, and any other person who identifies as a woman) are not limited to the physicality of their bodies, but also their capability and what they can do and express.
In our current climate, photography often describes itself as a force for liberation while remaining the loyal subject of state power. Long after Susan Sontag referred to the camera as a weapon in Regarding the Pain of Others (2003), the visibility of women continues to be radicalised from the omnipresent sexist policies upheld by social media to the potent visual strategies of the anti-abortion movement. Arguably, matters have barely changed. Sharpened by a global pandemic and a world that embraces more conservative ideology every day, we are left wondering what can photography really do? How are contemporary artists using photography to continue the fight for women’s freedoms? And is it possible to reclaim that power?
“Proving to people that their perceptions were wrong became central. People were telling me, especially in Spain, that these problems belong in the past or other countries. I knew from my research that this was not true.”
Laia Abril’s On Abortion(2015), part of her series A History of Misogyny, is a gut-wrenching exploration of the repercussions of not having access to safe, free and legal abortion. Every year 68,000 women around the world die due to botched, illegal procedures. Those who survive risk imprisonment or exile from their community, while millions are forced to continue their pregnancy against their will.
Abril’s research took her worldwide, investigating issues from the history of birth control to dangerous DIY methods women have used for centuries. She collected harrowing personal testimonies from survivors and learned of the violence inflicted on abortion providers. Through complex visual strategies that borrow from ethnography, journalism and social science, Abril maps how patriarchal institutions have long controlled female fertility.
What ignites the work is the ways in which Abril plays with ideas of perception and time. This methodology illustrates the public’s detachment and apathy around this urgent threat to women’s freedom.
“Proving to people that their perceptions were wrong became central,” Abril explains. “People were telling me, especially in Spain, that these problems belong in the past or other countries. I knew from my research that this was not true. My reaction was to dispel these myths and show them that these restrictions could happen tomorrow, anywhere.” Abortion rights are a thermometer of a country’s democracy, and the work articulates how deeply entrenched women’s bodily autonomy is with political strategy and power.
On Abortion is part of a new exhibition, Reproductive: Health, Fertility, Agency, on show at the Museum of Contemporary Photography in Chicago. The show directly confronts the history relating to women’s reproductive health, which has long been shrouded in shame, affected by bad science and discrimination. The near-silence in our culture around miscarriage, menstruation, menopause and how that affects a multiplicity of intersecting identities has either been overtly politicised or rendered invisible.
The exhibition, curated by Karen Irvine and Kristin Taylor, features seven other artists: Krista Franklin, Candy Guinea, Candice Breitz, Elinor Carucci, Doreen Garner, Carmen Winant and Joanne Leonard. Each one explores the psychological, physical and emotional realities of how the female body has long been a site of injustice.
“It’s a deeply political issue, and the more research you do, the angrier you get,” Irvine says. “It became important for the exhibition to call out the suppression of women’s basic human rights by male authoritarian leaders that exist in all different types of societies. It was vital for us to think about the links to capitalism and the labour force and how reproductive health is tied to all of those political concerns.”
The exhibition opens with Carmen Winant’s work, A History of My Pleasure (2019-20), which recognises that women’s historical lack of autonomy over their bodies is inextricably linked to sexuality. “Female pleasure has always been a threat to the patriarchy,” Irvine reflects. “It has been misrepresented both in science and popular culture and is directly related to all the issues around reproductive justice. It’s where it all begins.”
Winant assembles hundreds of images, found in publications and journals produced during the 1970s feminist movement, that collectively shift our perception of what pleasure looks like. The photographs describe sexuality, sensuality and touch in myriad forms. They present the female body as one able to enjoy sex and hold power simultaneously, in direct opposition to forces seeking to politicise and subdue a woman’s libido. Taylor adds, “Winant’s work is equally about sensuality as it is about taking the idea of pleasure away from the objectification of the female body in the forms that we normally see it.”
Other works on show include Franklin’s book project Under the Knife (2018). It details her relationship to her body after a long struggle with uterine fibroids, a condition known to cause infertility and one that disproportionately affects Black women. There is also Mariposa (2017), a film by Guinea that depicts the heteronormative childbirth industry from the perspective of a queer Latinx couple.
“This work is so personal,” Taylor explains. “Most of the artists in the show had to take a leap to make work that they may be judged for, that may not sell or that carries the risk of never being exhibited. In curating this show, we have seen that there is a huge audience for this work. People are so relieved to finally see these experiences expressed visually and talked about.”
The bigger picture
For decades the camera has played an essential role for feminist artists to critique forces of state-sanctioned oppression. Image-makers like Carrie Mae Weems, Suzy Lake, Renee Cox, Linda Troeller and Mary Beth Edelson used their bodies to confront and reimagine the female experience. In Abigail Heyman’s iconic book Growing Up Female (1974), she deals with themes of birth, pleasure, abortion and the everyday complicated and contradictory aspects of being a woman that had rarely, if ever, been acknowledged in the art world. Let us consider some other examples of contemporary artists offering alternative visions of women’s freedom.
The late Hannah Wilke made work that examined and critiqued the depiction of women and female sexuality in art history and pop culture, drawing attention to the ongoing objectification of their bodies. The pioneering artist, known for the confrontational use of her body, made her most radical work towards the end of her life.
Intra-Venus (1991-93) recorded Wilke’s long battle with lymphoma through large-format colour photographs and a multi-channel film piece. Adulterated by illness, she refused to be defined by her body and its appearance.
“People usually don’t let themselves be seen sick, without their hair and bloated from chemo,” Barbara Tannenbaum, curator of photography at Cleveland Museum of Art, says. “Her willingness to show what happens with the ravages of time and disease, and let go of that vanity was a real statement of taking control, even when her body wasn’t meeting societal norms. In a way, inflicting the experience on the viewer to say this is a part of life.” Wilke used the work to validate her womanhood and her right to be seen, untethered from cultural codes and expectations.
“The idea of visibility has been such a cornerstone for activists for decades now. Someone like Zanele Muholi is using the simple act of standing in front of the camera as a powerful statement. The extent of their archive highlights the important presence of queer and trans individuals in South Africa.”
Sophie Hackett, Art Gallery of Ontario
Sophie Hackett, curator of photography at the Art Gallery of Ontario, agrees and notes the invaluable contribution of South African photographer, Zanele Muholi. “The idea of visibility has been such a cornerstone for activists for decades now,” she says. “Someone like Zanele Muholi is using the simple act of standing in front of the camera as a powerful statement. The extent of their archive highlights the important presence of queer and trans individuals in South Africa.”
While much of Muholi’s work directly addresses the ongoing violence that LGBTQIA+ people face, perhaps their most radical work is the joyful documentation of the community, reversing a history of invisibility. Being (2006-ongoing), on show at Tate Modern until 17 May, celebrates the everyday intimacy between lesbian couples. In addition to countering visual strategies that uphold the misconception that queer life is ‘unAfrican’, Muholi creates a safe space for lesbians to be free from patriarchal violence and fully embody their love and pleasure.
Likewise, Muholi’s portrait series Brave Beauties (2014-ongoing) collaborates with trans women, gender non-conforming and non-binary people, many of whom are beauty pageant contestants, holding space for bodies that are constantly under threat.
In The Notion of Family (2001-2014), LaToya Ruby Frazier uses the photograph as a platform for social justice and representation, explored through three generations of women enduring life in the shadow of a steel mill. Grounded in her hometown of Braddock, Pennsylvania – once a bustling steel town, now a tragic consequence of post-industrial decline – she visually renders the tangible repercussions of environmental racism, government abandonment and political indifference.
Photographing herself, her mother and her grandmother, Frazier testifies to the ways in which corporations control and assert power over human life. Her longtime collaboration with her mother creates the project’s most disarming and affirmative images. The women pose together or photograph each other as a mode of self-expression to resist the dehumanising stereotypes inflicted upon them. Frazier’s sense of care, compassion and responsibility offers a deeply personal and profoundly political vision.
Looking to the future
While many of these photographic works play a critical role in opening up lines of inquiry and dialogue in culture, the question of whether this hierarchy can ever be toppled remains. Dr Jennifer Good, course leader of photography at the London College of Communication and a leading academic focused on the relationship between photography and violence, cites Laura Mulvey’s essay Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema (1975) and the male gaze theory as critical in thinking about this work.
She explains: “Firstly, we should acknowledge the theory’s limitations, as it is positioned in a very binary, cis, heteronormative space, but this theory is still deeply important. There are two layers to male gaze theory: the first is that women’s bodies are coded in a certain way to be consumed and objectified by a heteronormative, straight, masculine viewer.
On a deeper level, Mulvey argues that the history of representation of women’s bodies in this way has been so powerful and ubiquitous that it’s changed women’s self-identification and awareness on a deeper level.
“It’s this idea that as a cis woman, I have this kind of internalised male gaze within my consciousness. I’m always watching myself. It’s about how those images have changed our subjectivity, our psyche and our sense of being in the world. It’s a type of power that is, in a sense, insurmountable.”
Dr Jennifer Good
“It’s this idea that as a cis woman, I have this kind of internalised male gaze within my consciousness. I’m always watching myself.” Good continues: “It’s about how those images have changed our subjectivity, our psyche and our sense of being in the world. It’s a type of power that is, in a sense, insurmountable. For me, when we’re talking about feminist image practices that seek to undo, comment, critique and draw attention to these power relationships, which is really valuable, we first need to recognise that they are so structurally powerful that we can’t ‘reclaim’ or truly change that dynamic, as that would require us to undo a lot of history.”
Where progress is beginning to slowly manifest is within art institutions. Exhibitions such as Reproductive at MoCP Chicago is a trailblazer in both its depth and breadth of ideas. “Museums are a safe space to have dangerous conversations,” Tannenbaum says. “It takes these kinds of dialogue to allow people to look at the world through different filters, through somebody else’s eyes. And that kind of broadening of perspective is valuable.”
Beyond redistributing power and providing greater equity for women artists, one of the biggest challenges facing museums is how they confront centuries of bias in art history. This critical task involves pushing beyond inserting women artists into the existing narrative, but more distinctly changing a culture of thinking to reimagine entirely new narratives.
It would be remiss to not reflect on the role of the audience. To look at work like Abril’s is to elicit urgent and strong provocations – not merely to ask why this is happening, but more acutely, why have we allowed this to happen? In her groundbreaking book The Civil Contract of Photography, the Israeli author and professor Ariella Azoulay considers the “citizenship” of photography and argues that photographs can transform the world and elicit action.
The problem is not images; it is the audience. Hackett reflects: “The limits of the photograph and the camera are the limits of humanity in any given moment. We’ve seen moments throughout history where a photograph has made a difference, but there has to be an audience willing to be affected by what they see.”
Reproductive: Health, Fertility, Agency is on show at the Museum of Contemporary Photography at Columbia College Chicago until 23 May 2021.
Creative director, writer, podcaster and photo director, Gem Fletcher works across visual-cultural fields, focusing on emerging talent in contemporary photography and art. She is the photo director of Riposte Magazine, and hosts a photography podcast, The Messy Truth.