On abortion: ‘All of them had mixed feelings’
In conversation with photographer Laia Abril
Every year, some 47,000 women around the world die from backstreet abortions. Laia Abril has just launched her new book A History Of Misogyny Chapter One: On Abortion – And The Repercussions Of Lack Of Access, from her photographic essay first exhibited in 2016 in Arles. At a talk and book signing session on 1 March at Le Bal, an independent arts centre in Paris, Abril revisited the artistic and journalistic journey she took.
What were your thoughts about abortion before you started your project?
The proposal to change the law in Spain in 2013 was the first time I realised that there was a threat to abortion. I had never thought about it before. Well, actually, when I was working at Colors Magazine, we started researching the ‘abortion boat’, an organisation called Women On Waves that provides abortion in countries where it is illegal. So, the two things kind of piqued my interest. But I didn’t pursue the subject until 2015, when I started the research for A History Of Misogyny. At that time, abortion was just one of the topics inside a chapter but was not a chapter in itself. When I started researching abortion, and the consequences of being unable to access abortion, I realised how serious and urgent the situation was.
What was your point of view?
I am, and always have been, pro-choice. This project is about the repercussions of not having access to abortion in extreme cases like rape, danger to life or congenital anomalies. It is very hard for me to understand that pro-life people are against abortion even when we are talking about a woman who might die from not having one. This is where my mind kind of explodes. I understand that a person might not want to have an abortion, but what I don’t understand is someone preventing another person from having this right. I also looked at some ethical questions, for example: until when is it fine to have an abortion? I had never asked myself this kind of question before. If you ask me now, since I confronted experts and asked myself these questions, my answer is that I don’t ask questions. I don’t need to know the reason for the abortion. If a woman chooses to have an abortion at any time during a pregnancy, that means that there is a big problem. Maybe it is because she did not have access to it earlier on, but, in any case, something is very wrong. So, I don’t need to know. I am not one to judge. It is complicated. I do understand that people might have some issues with late-term abortion, but, I can assure you, no woman wants to have an abortion. Now that I know much more about context, access, complications and stigmas, I understand why women have abortions. That was one of the purposes of the project: if we see pictures and we understand why things happen, then we will probably judge less than we did in the first place.
When did you realise this was a topic for discussion?
In summer 2015 I went to the Museum of Contraception and Abortion in Vienna. I started to learn about the problematic elements surrounding the topic, and the repercussions of it. At that time I also started to read about El Salvador, a country where you could be dying and you still would not have access to an abortion. Women have been accused of homicide after having a miscarriage on late-term of pregnancies. I guess it was a warning bell. I realise it was something we should pay attention to.
The title of your book is: A History Of Misogyny Chapter One: On Abortion – And The Repercussions Of Lack Of Access. Can you explain why you have chosen this title?
A History Of Misogyny is a long-term project and conceptual umbrella under which I have been developing different chapters and series that are connected to the topic of misogyny. They follow the same premise in which I compare the present and the past. By having this kind of global vision in time and space, we can understand the bigger picture. The project On Abortion is part of A History Of Misogyny. It is called On Abortion because it is about abortion, specifically ‘on the repercussions of not having access to it’. Everybody has an opinion on abortion, almost everybody. Once you decide that you are against abortion, you might not think about the repercussions. Creating specific legislation, stigmas and preventing women from having access to abortion have severe repercussions. More than 47,000 women die every year and some are imprisoned because they don’t have access to safe and legal abortions. Looking at the numbers, it is difficult to believe that anyone in their right mind could be so lacking in compassion and inflexible about this. The tragic consequences should help people realise that there is a problem and that it is necessary to at least talk about it. If you don’t care about a woman dying, then it does not make sense to me. You are calling yourself pro-life. What kind of pro-life are you if you don’t care about a woman dying?
What was the goal of this book?
My main target audience is people who are against abortion. People who are not informed. That is one of my goals: to get to those people somehow. However, it is also a process for me to understand the history of misogyny as a whole. Obviously, there is also an artistic intention. I have a calling to tell stories that are uncomfortable and hidden. I have a tendency to be comfortable telling them and finding a way to represent them. We need words, we need information, we need text. And I do use text, which is as important as images in my project. But there is something about visual representations that sticks in our brains and makes us more empathetic, more compassionate. Being informed prevents us from voting for people who make decisions we don’t agree with. I don’t just provide information, I provide connections through feelings. It is a balance of both things.
You chose to explore abortion from a different angle, can you explain why?
I am not saying that the way I do things is the best one, nor the only one. But I have been exposed to certain kinds of images that just make me not want to look at them anymore and forget about them. So, I tried to find a strategy in which I politely invite you to look at my work and make you think about something that you might not have thought about before. The stories are shocking. I am trying to invite those who are against abortion into the conversation. If I shout in your face, you won’t stay. However, if I invite you to look at it intelligently, it might work. For me, there is a constant struggle between my two sides: journalist and artist. As an artist I want to shake things up, but as a journalist I want to welcome people in.
‘What kind of pro-life are you if you don’t care about a woman dying.’
Would you define yourself as an artist, an activist, or as a feminist?
I am more than one of those things. I am a feminist, but I don’t do feminist art. I think feminist art is slightly more connected to activism, and I am definitely not an activist, even though I work with them. I think I am an artist who works with research-based projects, and my background in journalism means that I have a tendency to think a lot about the audience. The way I present the facts is very artistic, I guess, but the material I work with is quite journalistic because it is the truth.
Was there any common factor among the women you met during your research?
One thing that shocked me and that I didn’t expect was that most of them, if not all of them, had mixed feelings. It was never black and white. It is never pleasant to have an abortion even if you don’t want to have a baby. It’s very emotional. Women go through a complex emotional journey. And I loved that about them, because it is more real. These grey areas of life are so interesting, as we all have different backgrounds, beliefs, prejudices, morals and ethics. Humans and these special situations are complex. That complexity in the journey was fascinating and common to all of the women I met.
In which country did the situation seem the most alarming to you?
El Salvador is insane, and in Brazil so many women are dying. Latin America is a mess, Africa is a mess. Even the United States has a problem right now, and Poland is regressing. We are at a stressful moment in time. Mike Pence recently said that he thinks that legal abortion in the United States is going to come to an end. We cannot even start to imagine the consequences of that. I don’t want to compare different situations, because the struggle of a woman in Poland trying to access abortion is not comparable to a woman in El Salvador being incarcerated for 30 years because of a miscarriage, but both suffer and deserve attention. If you just focus on the extreme cases, you might forget about the others, and things will start to get worse.
‘Women send me messages and tell me about their abortion.’
How are people reacting to your project?
It is interesting because at the exhibition in Arles people were extremely welcoming and emotional about it. It got the Madame Figaro award. There are two things: the recognition from the art world, and the reaction of the public. So far both have been great, but the reaction of the public is very intimate. When people reach out to me, they don’t put it on Facebook, they send me a private message. It’s interesting because when I was working on a project about eating disorders, what people thought about that was more public. With On Abortion, women send me messages and tell me about their abortion. I am sure many more of them want to get in touch but they don’t because it is such a difficult topic.
What will the Chapter II be?
I am researching several possibilities: hysteria, menstruation myths, rape culture… What comes first will depend on the urgency of the topic. Everything is changing and moving; I have to be aware of what is going on. It is also a matter of finding funds to be able to produce my work. It is a struggle. I am not complaining, but I don’t want young photographers to think that it is easy. When people ask me how I do it, I always explain very straightforwardly that it is not easy to work on such topics, because I think it is important to be transparent.
Are you still in contact with the women you have met?
I am with some of them. In this particular case, however, my connection with them reminds them of a difficult thing. So, I am very respectful, in that if they want to be in contact with me, I am happy to be, but I also understand that they don’t want to think about their illegal abortion all the time. Some of the women are activists and more vocal, they follow the project closely and I have more contact with them.
For more information, visit Laia Abril's website