Historically documentary photography has tended to push repeatedly into the same subject territories, while leaving other topics noticeably unattended. The reasons for this are certainly complex, and range from practical questions, for example issues around what topics are accessible, to concerns about aesthetics, through to what are essentially value judgements about the worth or non-worth of certain topics, experiences and places. That latter reason is intimately connected with the fact that documentary photography has, with some notable exceptions, historically been practiced by a relatively homogeneous group of white, western men. This is troublesome, not because being a white western man is in itself a problem, but because documentary photography can only realise it’s ambitions when it’s practitioners reflect the heterogeneity of backgrounds, viewpoints and experiences that they seek to document. Things are changing, the field is gradually becoming more representative, and that was evidenced in some of the exhibitions at this year’s iteration of the Rencontres d’Arles Festival and the topics they opted to explore.
Laia Abril has made a name for herself focusing on subjects which have been examined by relatively few photographers, this despite the fact that they are issues we might all have had some contact with in our daily lives. Her past works have explored complex questions related to sexuality, identity and gender, and have done so in ways which are often sensitive, appropriate to the subject, and often also quite innovative. Probably her best known body of work is The Epilogue, a book published in 2014 which reconstructs the events leading up to a young woman’s death as a result of the eating disorder Bulimia nervosa, and which movingly documents the grieving and familial fallout which results from her death. At the festival this year Abril was showing an exhibition of her latest project, one which is in some respects very different to an intense, close focusing work like The Epilogue, but which at the same time continues her interest in gender and health.
The title of the show, A History of Misogyny, chapter one: On Abortion requires no elaboration, this exhibition is the first part of an extended body of work which examines misogyny in a broad sense of the word, from both historical and contemporary perspectives. The exhibition opens with a historical overview, most strikingly a series of photographs of historic contraceptives and medical equipment, ranging from condoms made from animal innards to equipment designed or adapted for abortions. These are arrayed in angular grids, and photographed in a soft pink light which might well be the muted lighting of a museum display case but in the context of the exhibition recalls a dingy lab. Other items in this section include early medical diagrams and an overview of historic attitudes to abortion. As it soon becomes clear, many of these attitudes remain entrenched in the present.
Moving on through the exhibition it is the contemporary accounts from women who have sought abortions in countries where they remain restricted which are the most powerful and also the most effective in illustrating just how complex the issue is in different parts of the world. Closely connected to these are grids of images which create narratives recounting the stories of women seeking abortions. The photographs are intentionally prosaic, showing waiting rooms, the exteriors of buildings, but combined with text the narrative effect of them is forensic and remarkably powerful. They also offer a strange and presumably unintentional echo of the lewd, indeed sometimes misogynist photo narratives included in a nearby exhibition in of material from the French satirical magazine Hara Kiri.
Each of these accounts acts as an individual testimony of one woman’s experience of seeking abortion, but they also individually illustrate different issues and attitudes towards abortion in different states and parts of the world, in effect priming and educating a viewer who might know little beyond the context of their own country. For example these narratives introduces the idea of medical staff who conscientiously object to performing the procedure, even where it is legal and mandated, and the danger in other countries of doctors denouncing patients who they believe have sought an illegal abortion to the police. But the exhibition also demonstrates the way the procedure is not just as something which is variously either available or denied to women, but also as procedure which is sometimes used against them, as in the horrifying account of a woman forced to undergo an abortion for contravening China’s one child policy.
At the far end of the topic (and the gallery space) from those first muted images of medical instruments, Abril considers the ways that the issue of abortion is met by very contemporary technologies. One image examines how Apple’s Siri personal assistant displayed a bias towards users seek abortion clinics, directing them instead adoption clinics, posing the question of how prejudices can be built into supposedly neutral technologies by design or accident. Another image reflects the use of consumer drones to transport abortion drugs across borders in Europe into countries like Poland where the procedure remains highly restricted. In the great span of time covered by this work Abril draws well observed connections between past and present, for example in the euphemistic adverts offering to treat ‘menstrual delays’ and other conditions, which have remained a historical constant and are just one illustration of how in some respects very little has changed.
As with previous works the visual strategies that Abril employs are also enormously diverse, from comparatively straight documentation of objects, people and places to more contemporary strategies including displaying archival material, appropriation of material from campaign groups and in a few cases the reconstruction of events, as in an image of hand cuffs on a hospital bed. Does this subvert the documentary legitimacy of the work? Not for a moment, indeed it fits with the atmosphere of forensic reconstruction which pervades the entire exhibition.
Abril manages to deal with an incredibly challenging subject in a way which meets the clear need for the show like this to be visceral and challenging. At the same time she also succeeds in balancing that against the danger of the exhibition being written off by some viewers as a mere chamber of horrors, and their consequently not engaging with it on the level it demands. The exhibition is underpinned by detailed research and explanation throughout and never becomes gratuitous or feels designed to shock for the sake of it, indeed at times Abril goes to the extent protecting viewers from some of the more shocking material, in one case pixelating an image of an aborted foetus used by pro-life campaigners. In all this is an exhibition which manages to be informative, moving, bleak but without being nihilistic. Above all it is one which avoids providing viewers with simple preformed answers and instead demands that as well as looking at these images they decide for themselves what they think and feel.