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

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

‘My project begins in the 19th 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, the problems facing women trying to control their reproduction were medical and technological. Now we live in a technological age and the problems women 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 Abril’s exhibition is not for the faint-hearted, she does not resort to shocking imagery or polemics. Instead, the show 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.
Soap and syringes used for abortion, from the Museum of Contraception and Abortion in Vienna, photographed by Laia Abril. Photograph: Laia Abril/Institute

From there, she leaps to what she calls photo-novels, which consist of personal stories that graphically illustrate the consequences – both physical and psychological – of unsafe abortion. A young Polish woman recalls a 15-hour illegal procedure in an overcrowded, airless clinic. When she described the ordeal to her boyfriend, he said: “That’s seems right – murderers should be treated like cattle.” An Irish man 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 option,” he says. “To our surprise, Cork University Hospital refused to do it.”

laia abril by piero martinello
Laia Abril. Photograph: Piero Martinello

Abril, 30, hails from Barcelona, and is a graduate of Fabrica, the Benetton arts project in Italy. Working closely with the designer Ramon Pez, who is crucial to the layouts of her shows and photobooks, Abril is a thoughtful conceptualist who tells metaphorical stories about difficult subjects using a mixture of research and whatever raw material comes to hand: found photos, her own images, family photographs, personal testimonies, official archives, interviews and diaries. The Epilogue, her previous project, tackled eating disorders though the tragic tale of Mary Cameron Robinson, an American woman who died of heart failure in 2005, at 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.
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. Photograph: Laia Abril/Institute

This time, the found material and loaded objects – from an operating chair to a tangled heap of coathangers – make 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 São Paulo, who was taken to hospital with severe abdominal pains after ingesting abortion pills. 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 only after agreeing to pay £200 bail. Denunciation by doctors is common in Brazil, Peru and El Salvador.

“There are so many stories,” 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 stories are true, the research is journalistic, the imagery is sometimes imaginative and sometimes documentary.”

Ancient Herbs and Oral Solutions, depicting herbs used in El Salvador to induce abortion.
Ancient Herbs and Oral Solutions, depicting herbs used 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 “fix” 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 threat left on the phone of someone who worked at a clinic in Orlando, Florida. “You like killing babies, don’t you?” the caller says in a quiet but simmering voice. “You like to sell death parts for a dirty profit 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.
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 extremist 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 murders and 26 attempted murders.

Why has Abril chosen such a loaded subject as the first chapter in her history of misogyny? “It seemed timely,” she says, “because of the Pope’s 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.

Abril’s image Boiling Bath, Tooth and Superstition, referring to the centuries-old idea that a scalding bath could induce a miscarriage.
Abril’s image Boiling Bath, Tooth and Superstition, referring to the centuries-old idea that a scalding bath could end a pregnancy. Photograph: Laia Abril/Institute

For her project, Abril has recreated a confession made by a woman who had an abortion. “I use whatever I need,” she says, “because I am really dealing with an invisible subject, one that it is hard for women in these countries to talk about because they feel ashamed or threatened or afraid. Even in confession, they are treated as murderers. It is important to confront this. In El Salvador today, 17 women who were pregnant and had late miscarriages have been charged with homicide and are serving prison sentences of between 20 and 40 years. Not for abortions, but miscarriages.”

She sighs. “I have heard and seen so many horrible things while making this work. So many horrible things.”

A History of Misogyny, Chapter 1: On Abortion is at Magasin Électrique, Arles, until 25 September. See more here.

Source: The Guardian.