Around the world, women’s rights to make decisions about their own bodies are contested on a daily basis, and as we continue to hurdle through the tumultuous discussions surrounding unjust legislative practices, it becomes increasingly impossible to hope that conservative decision-making will soften with time. The state’s attack on marginalized bodies has been a weapon of power since the invention of legislation, and is not limited to the uterus; our society’s obsession with using binaries to demarcate individuals, making the misunderstood tangible, affects all genders and biologies. Reproductive violence extends to trans women as well, who for generations have been forced into sterilization procedures, all to legally claim a body and identity that should be theirs and theirs alone to define.
Demonstrated by events such as the recent ban in Alabama, abortion has grown into one of the most contested political debates, channeled and charged for use in party platforms. This political angle solidifies its perception as a static argument of binaries—pro-choice vs. pro-life—and as definitions surrounding all women’s choices concretize, the debate becomes more and more polarizing. The involvement of religion further complicates these political decisions, exemplified in Ireland’s recent election to overturn its criminally restrictive abortion prohibition.
When Olivia Harris—a photojournalist whose series Blessed Be the Fruit was awarded the first prize in Contemporary Issues at World Press Photo’s 2019 Photo Contest—first heard about Ireland’s abortion laws, she was floored, and immediately set out to document the individuals affected by the now-infamous Eighth Amendment. Her resulting project works to unravel the nuance in the country’s debate, displaying the countless perspectives, stories and experiences that culminate in a society of many individuals, rather than the two sides we are used to hearing about. In this interview for LensCulture, Harris speaks about her complicated personal ties to the Catholic church, our legislative power of control over women in both the church and state, and how her photographic story ended up being about so much more than the debate on abortion.
LensCulture: From what I understand, you discovered your love for photography through journalism. Tell me a bit about that realization. How do you think it defined your approach to making images?
Olivia Harris: I used to work for an online magazine and was training as a reporter. One of my tasks was putting together the daily photo story, so I was looking at images coming in from the news wires every day, and I just fell in love with pictures. It was completely unexpected. I thought to myself, “I want to be taking those pictures. I don’t want to be sitting in here.” So I bought a second-hand digital camera and started shooting.
LC: When you started shooting, did you find yourself drawn to particular stories, or did that change over time?
OH: I started shooting for a local newspaper, and quickly began pitching stories. I wanted to get as much experience as I could as quickly as possible, and this was a way to make sure I got assignments. I realize now that a lot of the stories I was pitching were focused on women and girls. I felt the media didn’t reflect my own experiences, or the character and personalities of the women and girls I knew. I wanted to show the female experience in an authentic way.
LC: How did this guide you to Blessed Be the Fruit? Did you decide to make a project about these events before you started shooting it, or did it piece itself together as you were photographing?
OH: It was a little bit of both. I definitely made the decision to go and shoot the story, but the themes evolved as the project progressed. I had been living in Asia, shooting breaking news for Reuters, often with a human rights angle. When I got back to England I learned from a friend that every year, 3000 Irish women had to travel to the UK to get abortions. I was surprised that a huge violation of human rights was happening right next door—and no one was discussing it.
I went to Ireland to talk to campaigners and heard Savita Halappanavar’s story. She died in 2012 after doctors refused to give her an abortion. She’d miscarried her child and the foetus was no longer viable, but a foetal heartbeat meant doctors felt unable to perform an abortion because of the Eighth Amendment. She died two days later from sepsis at the age of 31.
Savita’s story made clear how dangerous this law really was, so I spent time trying to work out what access I could get and what the pictures might be. But the style and themes developed as I shot the story over the course of a year. I struggled a lot with how to show the pro-choice side of the argument. I knew I wanted to show women leading the campaign for change to the Eighth Amendment. In stories about abortion, women are often shown as guilty victims, and I wanted to stay as far away from that as possible. But access was difficult—it’s such a sensitive subject—so I struggled for a while. Eventually I realized that the pro-choice side was using art and performance to communicate some very complex ideas about a woman’s right to choose and to question the traditional shame and silence around sex and women’s bodies. This approach so closely mimicked the theatrical rituals and ceremony of the Catholic church, so I began to focus on this aspect of the campaign.
LC: Which brings us to the title of the project. Where exactly does it come from?
OH: ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb’ is a line from the Hail Mary, and is repeated many times during Catholic prayers. I heard it a lot during my time in Ireland. The Handmaid’s Tale was showing when I was shooting the story and they say it frequently in that show, so I think it resonates with people who saw that program.
LC: Definitely. What’s compelling about your approach to documentary work is that the story of these women is close to your own experience. It’s a culture you identify with and recognize. How did this emotional proximity affect you as you were making the work?
OH: There is some lingering Catholicism in my own family, and my grandmother was Irish. I’m interested in how the Catholic view of women, sex and childbirth informs wider attitudes to women and girls. If women are not allowed to make decisions about their own body, do they have any freedom at all? In what other ways do these moral ideas limit women, and how do they cope with it? These were the key themes I wanted to explore, and the abortion debate helped me to frame these ideas.
It was unbelievable to me that an advanced economy like Ireland could still tolerate an abuse of basic human rights like sexual health. I wanted to expose the layers of thinking that allow a society to treat women this way. I wanted to show how this was possible in 2018. I’m stunned by the rollback of women’s reproductive rights that are underway in the United States. It shows us, yet again, how women’s rights are a proxy for so many other ideas about how society should work.
LC: It demonstrates how these beliefs continue to pervade in our global society, even if we live in places where abortion is legal.
OH: Absolutely. Ireland and Alabama took ideas about ownership of a woman’s body to an extreme—abortion was banned even in cases of rape or incest—but this kind of thinking is still present in all Western countries.
LC: When I look at your past work, I can tell that your approach to portraiture and photographing people is very collaborative. How did that way of working with your subjects play into this project?
OH: I interact with the people I photograph quite a bit. I feel weird about standing around and photographing people without establishing some sense of trust or relationship first. I talk to my subjects and capture pictures while that conversation is unfolding, and as we get to know one another. And I like to mix portraiture with documentary pictures.
LC: This approach also extends to the binding aesthetic throughout these images. You utilize flash in a more playful way, which removes the images from a traditional sense of visual reality, making them more other-worldly and less of a classic photojournalistic recording. Tell me about your decision to use flash in this way. What does it contribute to your story?
OH: I wanted to highlight the sense of friendliness, mischief and humour in Irish culture. The flash helped me do that. And I also wanted to root the pictures firmly in the present. Today, commercialism is everywhere—it’s bright, it’s colorful and it’s in your face. So when I use flash and color in this way, even though it looks uprooted from reality at first glance, I think it’s a more accurate reflection of the period we’re living through.
LC: Did any other photographers inspire this approach?
OH: I’ve been looking at Dougie Wallace’s work—he’s an interesting photographer. The stuff he shot outside Harrods is great. Wealth inequality is such an important subject—it shapes so much of our society—and he shot that subject matter in a surprising way.
LC: That makes sense. I wanted to ask you about the image of the young girl in the field. What’s her story, and how does she fit into this series? In a lot of descriptions of this work, the abortion debate takes centre stage. But like you said earlier, these images are more about the shaming of girls and women, and how that is reflected in society.
OH: Yes, if you look at her story, although it’s quite set back from the abortion referendum, it tells the same story of how women and girls are treated by the Catholic church. I met Katie when I went to photograph her family of eight. I was looking for a way to visualize ideas around contraception and the traditional Irish family. Katie’s family is proudly Irish, and because of the history of British rule in Ireland, being from the Republic of Ireland often means defending Catholicism. It’s incredibly bound up in Irish identity and culture.
Katie herself, the girl in the photo, was so lovely, and wants to become a priest, but isn’t allowed to because of her gender. I was further struck by how damaged the Catholic church is by recent scandals in Ireland—the mother and baby institutions, and the sexual abuse by priests. There’s now a shortage of priests in Ireland, and women carry out most of the church’s daily tasks, yet their role is not acknowledged and they are not given any power or authority.
LC: These nuanced stories are so important. I find the polarization of the abortion debate really problematic. There is so much misunderstanding, and it’s always framed as statically pro-choice versus pro-life, when there are actually many people who might not believe in abortion in a religious sense, but do believe in a woman’s right to have a choice. These rigid binaries are very damaging.
OH: Yes, religion is very precious to people, so I think it’s important to be respectful, and this was always coursing through my mind as I was making this project.
LC: A lot of people also view religion as this solitary thing that can be removed from your identity, but it is deeply embedded in culture. Rituals are important, and it isn’t necessary to siphon them out. There needs to be more conversation about nuance and coming to a collective understanding that doesn’t infringe on basic human rights, rather than this territorial, black-and-white framing.
OH: Rituals are important! They give us meaning that we don’t get elsewhere. And that is where religion got it right. It gives value to some human experiences, and while I may not support the reasoning behind most of it, I understand its value and the human need for it.
LC: Did you see that reflected in the debate in Ireland?
OH: Yes, the people leading the pro-choice campaign in Ireland managed it very well. They realized it would be a mistake to challenge people’s religious beliefs, and it was much better to frame the debate around choice: you don’t have to support abortion, you just have to support a woman’s right to choose. Trust her to make the choice that’s right for herself.
LC: That’s such an effective way to make change. Rather than “You’re wrong, I’m right,” it’s more about listening to each other.
OH: Exactly. We need to get beyond it in our storytelling too, and trust audiences to engage with more complex stories. There were so many different ideas that I thought were important to bring into the work, and I think that made it a challenging story to tell—and to publish. It wasn’t so neat. When I showed people the images, they loved the pictures, but they weren’t quite sure how they would fit into the narrative of a newspaper or magazine.
LC: Right, because people don’t want images that require too much explanation.
OH: Yup. And these pictures can stand alone, but they are also enlarged by that explanation.
LC: How did your own perception of the debate change as you pursued this project?
OH: I went into it worried about what I was going to find on the pro-life side, and the conversations I might have. I thought the pro-choice side would be quite easy to approach. But actually, it was the other way around. The pro-life people were very welcoming and generous, and I came to appreciate their point of view. I think shutting out their voices from this conversation is really problematic.
LC: How would you like that nuance to play into how your audience approaches this work?
OH: I would love people to think more deeply about the structures at play that influence our thinking about women and men. It’s not just about the glass ceiling or equal pay; it is much more pervasive than that. It’s how we think about both sexes, what we expect from them, what we think their roles are, and how we judge them. Gender assumptions are everywhere, and they’re embedded in women as well as men. I have to challenge my own thinking all the time, too.
Editor’s Note: In addition to Blessed Be The Fruit, Olivia Harris has a number of other documentary projects that are worth exploring. You can check all of them out here.