Originally trained as a journalist, Barcelona-born Laia Abril expanded her storytelling methods after studying at New York's ICP. She is best-known for the first chapter of her long-term project A History of Misogyny, On Abortion, which recently won the Paris Photo-Aperture Foundation PhotoBook of the Year Award and has been shortlisted for the 2019 Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize
I was fortunate to be raised in Barcelona. I grew up under the influence of people from different classes and backgrounds, helping me to develop an open mind and be curious about ways of thinking and living. The city vibrates – the sea, cultures, ideas. I have not lived through its best moment – the economic crisis hit it severely and I emigrated for seven years. Leaving was key in my consolidation as an artist and person. But Barcelona is that: people who go and return.
Every Sunday my parents would go to the second-hand book market and bring home a boxful. They made my room a library, and absolutely all the walls of the house were lined with books. I devoured them. Every time I didn’t know the meaning of a word, my parents made me look in the dictionary. From a very young age, they encouraged me to have a critical and open mind. They’ve always supported me. I’m doing what I’m doing thanks to them.
Research is implicit in my work and my personality. I’ve always had a hunger to know and understand. When I was 12, I was on the streets looking for stuff, classifying and filing content for interests I had. Studying journalism made me obsessed with getting into the lives of others.
I moved to New York to attend the International Center of Photography. New York was gasoline for that hunger. To understand that if I could align my energy with a place, find people with whom I could share it, feed myself and motivate myself, everything could be possible. I still miss the city, and I try to go as often as possible. Now it works as an injection of adrenaline and turbulence, a shot I get every now and then.
Colors magazine was my school. They taught me the values of teamwork and creative thinking. Colors [produced at Fabrica, Benetton’s Communication Research Center in Treviso, until the last issue in 2014] believed in slow journalism, and I was able to develop a series of storytelling platforms in which design, production, image and text went hand-in-hand to tell the story in the best possible way.
Fabrica is a peculiar environment. It’s in the middle of nowhere, in an incredible building, reconstructed by Tadao Ando. I was influenced by people from every corner of the planet, learning about disciplines from graphic design, interactive design, architecture, music, film and illustration. Even now, the majority of my collaborators come from that place.
I work closely with Ramon Pez. He’s the former art director at Colors. Together we evolved the methodology we learned at the magazine. We translated it into book-making. Just like a magazine, we decided the images would be at the service of the product – in this case the story. There always has to be a reason behind each decision.
My job is to get into mental places that nobody wants to go to. I consider it almost as my calling. There is a responsibility attached to what I do. I have to continually go back to that place, even when I resist the difficulties that arise.
I’m working on parallel projects exploring rape culture and mass hysteria. Both are formally quite different; [the first] has similarities with On Abortion, but it moves towards a more abstract installation form. I am suffering a lot for the research, and I cannot reach a place of peace. I am reacting continuously, which, being part of the process, will directly influence the result. I have to change that.
I want to tell the most uncomfortable, hidden, stigmatised and misunderstood stories. But it impacts on the rest of my life. I always thought that it would be easier every time, but instead it is getting harder.
We must fight for the day that women are no longer considered second-class citizens. We have to stop condescending victims, creating hierarchies and losing interest in injustices that happen ‘far from us’. We have to dethrone the beliefs that say there are things that cannot be talked about or cannot be changed. We have to face them.
I see my books as photo-novels. Editing, narration and construction are a single process. Empathy with my characters, as well as the reader, is key to understanding how far I can go, what they need to know, how I can make them feel. Editing is like composing music – there’s a visual rhythm, but an emotional rhythm too.