‘I’ve seen horrible things’: photographer Laia Abril on her history of misogyny

Poison herbs, handcuffs on a hospital bed, death threat voicemails the subtle but chilling exhibits in the photographers powerful show about abortion capture the horror of a largely invisible war on women

My project begins in the 19 th century, says Laia Abril, as she guides me through A History of Misogyny, Chapter 1: On Abortion, her sometimes disturbing exhibition at the Arles photography festival. Back then, their own problems facing girls trying to control their reproduction were medical and technological. Now we live in a technological age and the problems females face are linked to politics and religion. But in many countries, where abortion is still illegal, they have to resort to life-threatening procedures. So for them , nothing has changed.

Although Abrils exhibition is not for the faint-hearted, she does not resort to shocking imagery or polemicals. Instead, the present shifts between the personal, the historical and the cultural. It begins with her artful photographs of objects from the archive of the Museum of Contraception and Abortion in Vienna a condom made from a fish bladder, an array of surgical instruments and medical illustrations which s he presents as painterly still lifes, either singularly or in groups.

Soap and syringes used for abortion, from the Museum of Contraception and Abortion in Vienna, photographed by Laia Abril. Photo: Laia Abril/ Institute

From there, she leaps to what she calls photo-novels, which consist of personal tales that graphically represent the consequences both physical and psychological of unsafe abortion. A young Polish girl recalls a 15 -hour illegal procedure in an overcrowded, airless clinic. When she described the ordeal to her boyfriend, he said: Thats seems right murderers should be treated like kine. An Irish human describes how his pregnant and terminally ill wife was prescribed an abortion because chemotherapy had damaged the foetus. Michelle did not want to, but we had no other alternative, he says. To our surprise, Cork University Hospital refused to do it.

Laia Abril. Photo: Piero Martinello

Abril, 30, hails from Barcelona, and is a alumnu of Fabrica, the Benetton arts project in Italy. Working closely with the designer Ramon Pez, who is crucial to the layouts of her demonstrates and photobooks, Abril is a thoughtful conceptualist who tells metaphorical narratives about difficult subjects using a mixture of research and whatever raw material comes to hand: receive photos, her own images, family photograph, personal testimonies, official archives, interviews and diaries. The Epilogue, her previous project, tackled eating disorder though the tragic narrative of Mary Cameron Robinson, an American female who died of heart failure in 2005, at persons under the age of 26.

An image titled Hippocratic Betrayal and Obstetric Violence, by Laia Abril, referring to the case of a woman in Brazil who was handcuffed to her hospital bed after trying to give herself an abortion. Photo: Laia Abril/ Institute

This time, the found material and loaded objects from an operating chair to a tangled heap of coathangers construct the testimonies all the more stark. One of the most resonant images is a staged photograph of a pair of handcuffs hanging from the rail of a hospital bed. It is titled Hippocratic Betrayal and refers to the case of a 19 -year-old woman from So Paulo, who was taken to hospital with severe abdominal aches after ingesting abortion pill. After treating her, the doctor called the police, saying he would autopsy the foetus if she did not confess to trying to abort. She was handcuffed to her hospital bed and freed merely after agreeing to pay 200 bail. Denunciation by doctors is common in Brazil, Peru and El Salvador.

There are so many tales, says Abril, and it was important to find ways of telling them visually. The image of the handcuffs is a reconstruction because, of course, I was not present. No one was. The narratives are true, the research is journalistic, the imagery is sometimes imaginative and sometimes documentary.

Ancient Herbs and Oral Solutions, depicting herbs being implemented in El Salvador to induce abortion. Photograph: Laia Abril/ Institute

Abril has photographed bundles of toxic-looking herbs she bought on the black market in El Salvador, and one wall of her show is papered with adverts for Peruvian clinics that fixing and regulate what they call menstrual delays. In Peru, abortion is illegal except when the life of the mother is at risk, and anyone caught self-aborting faces up to two years in prison.

The most chilling exhibit, though, is not a photograph or a text, but a voice. On a small shelf rests an old-fashioned telephone. When you hold it to your ear, you hear a recording of a prolonged menace left on the phone of someone who worked at a clinic in Orlando, Florida. You like killing babies, dont you? the caller says in a quiet but simmering voice. You like to sell demise parts for a dirty earning while you get funded by my taxpayer money.

An FBI warrant for James Kopp, a member of The Lambs of Christ, who killed a doctor who worked at an New York abortion clinic in 1998. Photograph: Laia Abril/ Institute

It is a glimpse of the frontline of the abortion wars in the US, where staff at pro-choice clinics live with the fear of fire-bombings and shootings from radical pro-life groups such as The Lambs of Christ and The Army of God. Last year, an attack on a family-planning clinic in Colorado killed two civilians and one police officer. To date, anti-abortion violence in the US has led to 11 assassinations and 26 attempted murders.

Why has Abril preferred such a loaded topic as the first chapter in her history of misogyny? It seemed timely, she says, because of the Popes ruling on forgiveness, which just seemed so strange. In September 2015, Pope Francis announced the beginning of a one-year-long abortion amnesty entitled the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy, in which he granted permission for every priest in the world to forgive the sin of abortion for a period of one year. With this one edict, he seemed to overthrow the declaration of his predecessor, John Paul II, that abortion was murder and that women who have terminated a pregnancy should be excommunicated. When the year is up, though, the Catholic church reverts to that ruling.

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