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 – the book – 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.
The book can be purchased here.
For the project, it was important 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 also featured in their Touchstone Display from 3 May to 11 June 2017, and Susan signed books at the Rizzoli Book Shop on Saturday 20 May, as part of Photo London.
16 DAYS OF ACTIVISM
To mark International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women on 25 November 2017, and 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence (25 Nov – 10 Dec 2017), we teamed up with Susan again to develop a ‘pop-up’ exhibition at West Bromwich Indoor Market accompanied by a series of events, workshops and an ‘in conversation’ evening at West Bromwich Town Hall. Download a flyer to see the full programme of events or read about it here. We donated the proceeds from all sales of the book during this period to a local women’s refuge and we’re delighted to say we raised over £2500.
A ROOM OF THEIR OWN AT JEU DE PAUME, PARIS
A selection of photographs and stories, some of which have been made into multi-media narratives, are currently part of Susan Meiselas’ Mediations at the Jeue de Paume until 20 May 2018. The retrospective exhibition brings together a broad range of Susan Meiselas’ projects, from the 1970s to the present day and it’s well worth a visit.
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).