When they put their hands out like scales - Interview with Emma Campbell

When they put their hands out like scales
by Emma Campbell
Interview and Text by Sarah Allen
Intro text by Emma Campbell
Originally published in prism #10

Journeys 17 © 2012 Emma Campbell
'Power, exercised as control, has blighted the reproductive rights of humans worldwide for centuries. National ideals of motherhood and acceptable female behaviour are threaded through anti-choice arguments. To represent the ‘abortion journey’ experience, in effect it becomes the “fulcrum of a much broader ideological struggle in which the very meanings of family, the state, motherhood, and …women’s sexuality are contested” (Petchesky, Rosalind. Abortion and Women’s Choice: The State, Sexuality and Reproductive Freedom London: Verso1986 pp. 69).

The polemic surrounding abortion is bewildering. In this project ambiguity and conflict are played out in the passing landscapes and impersonal details of the journey to the clinic overseas, echoed by the political bluster and suffocating reality of the legal constrictions. Layers of glass and reflection acknowledge the obfuscatory and morally indignant language used by politicians and anti-choice campaigners. The enforced exile across the sea to the former colonial bosom, shrouded in secrecy and shame, is still one of the few options for women in the island of Ireland. All of these photographs were made sitting by windows during journeys to abortion clinics in Liverpool and London.'

Sarah Allen: Where did the inspiration for this project originate?

Emma Campbell: I was living in London up until 2009 and after spending some time traveling I enrolled in the Photography MFA course at the University of Ulster. It was only when I moved back to Northern Ireland that I properly remembered that abortion was illegal. In London it is available to people on the NHS so there isn't a huge discussion around it. Ireland's legal limbo in relation to abortion  seemed very strange to me. So that is really how I arrived at this concept, however I had no idea how I was going to approach the project photographically.

What was the process of arriving at this finished body of work?

I did a lot of research which involved visiting groups in Belfast who were working within the area of abortion as well as talking to academics who were researching abortion. During International Women's Day I also attended a performance by Ann Rossiter which was essentially a one-woman comedy show about a backstreet abortion clinic. Through this I found out that Ann volunteered for an organisation which pragmatically supports women from Ireland and Northern Ireland dealing with crisis pregnancies. I initially went over to their centre to take photos of the volunteers but as I travelled there the significance of the journey itself struck me. It's almost a transformative process. I read a line in Ann's book which talks about how exile is such a significant part of the Irish psyche. However traveling for an abortion is like an enforced, secretive version of exile. Suddenly the importance of the journey really hit home. Focusing on the journey also avoided making photographs of victims, which I really didn't want to do. Like the Magdalene Laundries, abortion is a significant part of our culture and the secrecy which surrounds it ensures that it remains publicly perceived as a taboo.

Sarah © 2012 Emma Campbell
Journeys 5 © 2012 Emma Campbell
It's such a controversial subject, what has the response to the project been like?

During the initial stages of the project there was no discussion around abortion, there were maybe four or five activists in Belfast and two in Derry. The anniversary of the X case hadn't happened yet,  Marie Stopes hadn't opened in Belfast and Savita Halappanavar hadn't died. However what I found really interesting was that so many people had an abortion story to share with me, from born again Christians, to atheists, people who were ill and those in abusive relationships. It really brought to light the fact that abortion isn't something that affects a minority group, even though it's very much portrayed that way. The secrecy that shrouds these journeys ensures a level of shame is attached to abortion and thus the control is kept out of the hands of the women dealing with crisis pregnancies.

You mentioned activism, do you consider yourself an activist artist?

When I was living in London I had a very minor involvement with activist feminist groups but this contact was mainly academic. When I started this project I would not have said I was an activist artist, rather that I was politically engaged. However now I would definitely consider myself an activist. Because I became so involved with this project I equally became totally embedded in activist culture. I believe that if I want to approach this subject from an honest perspective I have to take an activist standpoint. However something I have learned through this process is that everyone has to approach activism in their own way. As an artist I want to open a more nuanced discussion, one which acknowledges the personal rather than the theoretical.

Journeys 4 © 2012 Emma Campbell
 All the shots are taken in similar settings; did you find this process limiting or how did you work with the possible limitations that this method could present?

Yes the majority of the shots were taken on a bus or boat and this process did present difficulties. The first time I made the journey I brought four cameras. Given that I was trying to portray a psychological journey I also brought a Diana camera, as I thought the element of chance that the Diana allows could feed into the work really well. However given the conditions in terms of lighting etc. this approach was not very effective, so I ended up shooting everything on a DSLR. The portraits of the volunteers are photographed very differently to the images of the journey itself as I wanted to make a distinction between the isolation of the journey and the warm, non-judgmental feeling one gets when arriving at the centre.

Your exhibition currently running in the Copper House Gallery features a sound piece. Could you explain what is at play in this work?

A lot of the research I have done has centered around the idea of shame being completely silencing and disempowering. After speaking with Les at the Copper House we thought it would be a really nice idea to include a space in the gallery where people could respond to the work in a critical, personal or anecdotal way.  We invited people to share their stories prior to the exhibition opening and the resulting audio is played in the gallery space.

Mara © 2012 Emma Campbell
Journeys 7 © 2012 Emma Campbell
You also made a video piece as part of the project. How have you found making the transition into video? Do you think it is a medium which is better able to articulate the complexities of this issue?

In terms of transitioning to another medium I really view the video piece as a series of moving stills, but I will say that the process of video editing is extremely time-consuming! The inspiration for the work came from a performance called pro-voice by the Belfast Feminist network. The piece essentially fictionalised people's first-hand accounts of having an abortion and included a reenactment of the Stormont assembly debate on the subject of abortion. This particular aspect really struck a chord with me. When I later listened carefully to the arguments of the speakers I was shocked by the disjuncture between what was being said on the subject of abortion and what people who have had abortions had to physically go through. It was blatantly clear that there was no acknowledgment, understanding or empathy on the part of the people who were talking at the assembly. It's crucial to remember that if you're a person dealing with a crisis pregnancy and all you hear is political posturing—in a culture where the loudest voices are the voices of fundamental religious values—it makes the decision to have an abortion much more difficult. I asked actors to reread the script from the assembly as this approach removed some of the personality of the original speakers and really showed up the words for their empty rhetoric. The video shots make a definite journey from the seat of the assembly, via a domestic space, to the public space of the docks.

David Ervine was one of the only people in the debate who acknowledges the fact that a decision to have an abortion is never taken lightly and pointed out that instead of supporting women who make this decision we are criminalising them. (David Ervine's comment: “When they put their hands out like scales and try and make this decision, the moral arguments we create do not help them, because there is right and wrong in each hand or in each side of the balance.”)

Journeys 18 © 2012 Emma Campbell

Was it an obvious choice for the title?

It took a while to find a title but I knew it would be in the text somewhere. However I was conscious that I didn't want to lead people too much. I want the viewer to make a decision for themselves.

You're also completing a practice-based Ph.D at the moment. What lines of enquiry are you pursuing?

A lot of themes I have covered in the past have been gender related. For the research part of the Ph.D I am looking at the impact of female documentary practitioners in the 1970's and thinking about the gendered issues surrounding this subject. A particular line of enquiry will look at how involved these photographers have become with their subjects.

Who are your personal photographic influences?

Nan Goldin is one photographer who was hugely influential when I was younger. I would think that she is probably a major influence for a lot of female photographers! I loved Paul Graham's work in Japan; it was really exquisite and gentle. Dana Popa, Trish Morris, Rineke Dijkstra, Julian Germain, Anna Fox and Lauren Greenfield would also be among my influences.

Gillian © 2012 Emma Campbell
Journeys 11 © 2012 Emma Campbell
Is there anything else you would like to say about the project?

One thing I would mention is that although I would categorise myself as a documentary photographer the project has turned out to be more of a performance piece. The picture editor from The Irish Times actually got in touch wanting to know if I had accompanied the women on these journeys; as if I had done so, the project would have been considered a news piece. This perspective is somewhat echoed by Broomberg and Chanarin's comments about the Benazir Bhutto photograph which won The World Press Photo prize in 2007. They underlined that even though a viewer could not decipher anything from the photograph, the image itself still functioned as evidence. I think that was the angle the Irish Times were coming from; if an image is not evidence, then it's not news.

However, what I find really interesting is that photographers today are given the freedom to negotiate between photographic genres. This freedom allows us to use a photographic approach that really fits the subject.

'When they put their hands out like scales' has recently been shown in the Copper  House Gallery Dublin.

For more information on the Copper House Gallery see: www.thecopperhousegallery.com
Emma's work can also be viewed on her website: www.emmacampbell.co.uk

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