In this month’s blog post on Photobooks, we look at how photobooks have responded to political change through two books that focus on women’s reproductive rights; Laia Abril’s On Abortion and Rafal Milach’s Strajk.
Read more about Photobooks in previous blogs including Women in Photobooks, and how the Grid brings order and narrative to a story.
Look through the various histories of photobooks and you will find books that distil the political questions of the day; Japanese Photobooks of the 1960s and 1970s has a section in which photographers capture in harsh blurred and grainy tones, the anti-American protests of the 1960, The Latin American Photobook has books which focus on the human rights abuses and murder, and What They Saw: Historical Photobooks by Women, 1843–1999 features books that highlight issues from a woman’s right to vote, to a woman’s right to divorce, to a woman’s right to determine her own reproductive destiny.
On Abortion by Laia Abril
In her 2018 book, On Abortion, Laia Abril made a contemporary photobook that lays out the case for why this matters. It’s a book that looks at history of women’s fertility and how it has been regulated, controlled, and sacrificed at the hands of political, religious and economic power.
Abril’s book was a classic of the slow project, work which looked at the impacts political decisions made by men have on a human level. On the cover, the title On Abortion is erased with a black pen. Scrawled below in pencil is the subheading, ‘And the Repercussions of Lack of Access’. Go to the back pages and the very direct and transparent description of the book begins; ‘Every year 47,000 women around the world die due to botched illegal abortions.’
And that’s what the book is about. Facts. As with Matthieu Asselin’s Monsanto, there is no room for ambiguity. Abril is laying the evidence before you of what happens when men legislate their power over women’s bodies; the quack remedies that include ‘shock’ abortion methods such as having your teeth pulled out without anaesthetic and being bitten by a dog. There are clothes hangers, rat poison, boiling baths and women sleeping in the snow. And there is the desperation, the suffering, and those 47,000 deaths.
On Abortion is a book that has gained an additional resonance due to the recent leak of the US Supreme Court ruling on Roe v Wade, a ruling that is opening the way for the criminalisation of abortion in parts of United States.
Other countries, however, are ahead of this retrograde curve. In 2020, the Polish Supreme Court ruled that abortion was unconstitutional, resulting the following year in a near total abortion ban. This resulted in mass protests from an All-Poland Women's Strike that has the aim to restore full women’s rights to Poland.
Strajk by Rafal Milach
Strajk by Rafal Milach is a protest book that captures the anger felt by Polish women. It shows the demonstrations, the police, the participants but in a way that incorporates design to capture the complexity of protest and how it is conducted, shown and understood.
There are four major elements in Milach’s books. The texts give an academic context. They are not as accessible as the writing in Abril’s book. The images consist of wider images of protest, close ups of protestors’ faces, and images of observers from window.
The close ups show women in masks, with make-up that adds to the idea of the theatre of protest. There are pink hoods and balaclavas, face masks, face painting, and eyes that stare directly back to camera. Details show posters of Mary with a red bolt (symbol of the Strike) coming from her heart, or with a rainbow halo. This is a war being fought on multiple fronts.
The wider shots show people on the streets, on overpasses, in front of churches, in squares. There are ranks of police, arrests are made, and the violence is palpable. There are smoke bombs, coat hangers, and masked women appear topless in what Judith Butler calls ‘…the right to appear a bodily demand for a more liveable set of lives.’
Making images of protest is a difficult business, however. Protests are about collective being, about shared values, and endless images of demonstrations and police lines can become reductive. In the case of Strajk, this doesn’t happen because of the pictures of people at apartment building windows.
They stand at windows decorated with the strike lightning bolt, there are rainbow flags and posters saying ‘fuck you PiS’ (the right-wing party responsible for this ruling). People have come out of bed and the shower to watch. There are pensioners, children, and lovers. Many are supporting from a distance due to Covid, due to age, due to fear of police violence. Some are just watching, or filming. This is also a social media event. These people are both observers and participants. These apartment buildings are also a stage, a place for protest.
Strajk is a sophisticated book that shows the complex interplay between the church, state, and the constant fight for social justice. It’s a book about gender politics, a multitude of gazes, and how people are fighting for rights.
Want to learn more about the history of photography?
The part-time, online MA in Photography from Falmouth Flexible will introduce you to a number of themes and debates that are fundamental to the study of the image, such as debates around looking and subjectivity. You will also consider your own practice in relation to historical, philosophical, and ethical perspectives around photography and visual culture.
Colin Pantall is a photographer, writer and lecturer and teaches on the MA Photography programme at Falmouth University.