The world-famous photojournalist put her subjects centre stage at a women's refuge in The Midlands, empowering them to make decisions and including their testimonies in her project, as well as photographing them
“The moment I entered the refuge, I felt connected to their mission,” says Susan Meiselas of her recent work in the Black Country, at a refuge for women who have escaped domestic violence. “When I walked into the place it felt intuitively interesting.”
Meiselas was invited to Britain’s Midlands by West Bromich-based arts organisation Multistory; making a series of visits over 2015 and 2016, she honed in on the refuge and started working with the women living in it – photographing them and their living spaces but also, crucially, getting their input.
The final result is a book, A Room of Their Own, which includes Meiselas’ images but also first hand testimonies and original artworks by the women. Meiselas hopes it’s helpful in a number of different ways, to women entering the refuge in future, for example, but also to the refuge in finding funding for their work.
The process of making it might also have been helpful to those involved, though, because Meiselas approached the project in the same way that the refuge approaches its work – hoping to empower them to make their own decisions. Inspired by the format of a women’s magazine, Meiselas created an editorial team that included those living in the refuge, and asked them to help her put the publication together.
“Very early on I went into the idea of collaborating together,” she explains. “When you’re sitting together around the table, it creates a very special moment.”
It’s something she’s got form in because, while Meiselas is one of the best-respected photojournalists in the world – a member of Magnum since 1976, and famous for her work in Latin America – she is also a keen collaborator. She’s previously worked on a community project in the Cova da Moura district of Lisbon, for example, which saw her handing cameras out to local people and exhibiting their images alongside her own work.
In A Room of Their Own, she “identified a team” then set about researching magazines with them, picking out ideas which would create a lively, relatable end result. “We looked at various UK women’s magazines, we wanted to create stories women would be open to reading,” she explains.
The women in the refuge are working towards leaving it, and Meiselas admits she was surprised by how transient they were – in the two months between her first and second visit, she says, many had already moved on. But she was able to gain the trust of some who stayed longer, and says she saw them “opening up very differently” by her third visit. “They were getting more comfortable with me,” she says; the final strand of the project was going to see some who had settled in new homes.
The project includes some portraits but, keen to protect the women’s anonymity, Meiselas often obscured their faces. She also showed interiors shot in the refuge and, entering into one of the women’s bedrooms, she realised she could show something of them through their personal spaces – though she points out that reading these spaces isn’t easy.
“You could see the rooms as expressions of being, but a room that’s quite empty and stark doesn’t necessarily express what it might seem to,” she says. “A room that’s empty might also say ‘I don’t want to stay here’ [eg be a positive impulse towards moving on].”
A Room of Their Own was published back in May, but Meiselas has returned to West Bromwich to present the work as part of the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence. For her, it’s essential to keep up the struggle against domestic violence – something sadly as crucial now as in 1990, when she worked with others affected by the crime in San Francisco.
“The deep, sad reality is that the need isn’t ever going away,” she told The Guardian back in May. “In 1990 in San Francisco, I worked on a campaign to announce the first crisis line in the city, and I can tell you that the district attorney’s office and the special prosecutor were all thinking: this is all we need to do, and it will solve the problem. But it didn’t, of course.”
In San Francisco her work included campaigning, and in this project too she’s contributed much more than photography alone. “Multistory is interested in ideas,” she concludes, “not someone who can complete the photographs”.
A Room of Their Own is a partnership project with Multistory and Creative Black Country (as part of the Arts Council England’s Creative People and Places Programme). Multistory is supported by Sandwell Council and Arts Council England.
The book can be bought here – http://multistory.org.uk/shop – with all proceeds going to women and children in refuge.
Susan Meiselas is discussing A Room of Their Own at West Bromwich Town Hall from 6pm-8pm on 01 December.
This event is part of a programme of talks and workshops organised by Multistory as part of the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence from 25 November-10 December, which also includes a book signing by Meiselas on 02 December http://multistory.org.uk/event/a-room-of-their-own-16-days-of-activism/