I was invited by Multistory to photograph in the Black Country in the UK. The moment I entered a woman’s refuge there, I felt connected to its mission. We developed a collaborative project with the women who were willing to share their stories. We agreed that there would be no visual identification of the people or locations within the refuge shelter network.
Susan Meiselas, 1 April 2017
A Room of Their Own is a visual narrative combining photographs, first hand testimonies and original art works. It was created through a series of collaborative workshops with Magnum photographer Susan Meiselas and women in refuge, in the Black Country, over 2015 and 2016.
A Room of Their Own shares women’s experiences of domestic abuse and the process of entering refuge alone, or with their children, to the collective life within, to then becoming resettled in their own home. The visual narrative emphasises absence in order to protect the women’s identities, and progressively their presence becomes more visible with the inclusion of their stories and artwork and, in some instances, portraits.
Only when I actually entered a refuge and found openness to start a dialogue, did I begin to imagine creating work that could connect women, whose lives had been most deeply impacted, with women who could listen and learn from them.
It was necessary to find creative approaches to involve the women living in refuge and hear their stories. Together with Multistory, Susan developed an approach that could be collaborative, bringing together many voices and perspectives. A larger team was assembled – Sarah Taylor Silverwood, an illustrator, Emma Purshouse, a writer, and two digital assistants from Susan Meiselas’ studio, Alex Nelson and Lexi Brown – to run workshops alongside women in refuge. The programme of workshops included creative writing, collage, photo diaries and soup making hosted in refuges. Starting with a soup-making workshop led by local group, The Bearwood Pantry, the workshops served as a way of getting to know one another and later, to produce material for the book.
In my photographs, each room, like each life, is unique. The image of a space is a record and also a kind of mirror. The woman is absent, yet present. Not everyone offered to open their doors, but I gave a print to those who did. These photographs may serve as a memory of each landscape, at a particular point in time.
Most important was that the opening of this door would not put anyone at further risk, including the institution itself. Ideally we wanted to make something with and for those we had met who shared their stories, and for those who might need to hear them. We wanted to show the possibilities of life within and beyond the walls, and during and after the time when they are needed.
Susan gave a talk about the project and signed books at The Photographers’ Gallery on 20 May, 2017. A photograph from this project also featured in their Touchstone Display from 3 May to 11 June 2017. Susan also signed books at the Rizzoli Book Shop on Sat 20 May as part of Photo London.
The project culminated in a book and, to mark International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women on 25 November 2017, and the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence (25 Nov – 10 Dec), £20.00 from each sale of A Room of Their Own will be donated to The Haven Wolverhampton, a refuge for women and children; it can be purchased here. We have also teamed up again with Susan to develop a unique ‘pop-up’ installation and series of events, workshops and talks – more information can be found here.
Susan Meiselas (b. 1948, Baltimore, Maryland) joined Magnum Photos in 1976 and has worked as a freelance photographer since then. She is known for her documentary work across a range of subjects and relationships over time, in particular, her coverage of human rights issues in Latin America. Her photographs are included in American and International collections.
A Room of Their Own is a partnership project with Multistory and Creative Black Country (as part of the Arts Council of England’s Creative People and Places Programme).
To mark International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women on 25 November 2017, and the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence (25 Nov – 10 Oct) we have teamed up again to develop a ‘pop-up’ exhibition accompanied by a series of events, workshops and talks. Download a flyer detailing a full programme of events or click here to go to our event’s page.