For an event as epic and universal as giving birth, Carmen Winant wanted to know why it was still so taboo to talk honestly about it
It is hard to say how one will feel when looking at Carmen Winant’s “My Birth”, a photographic collage made from images of women giving birth. You might be curious, amazed, fearful, even repulsed. What I suspect most people will share is the feeling of looking at something that they have not spent a lot of time staring at before.
Winant, who is showing new work at Beaconsfield Gallery as part of Foam Talent, spent over a decade collecting images from books, pamphlets, and magazines that date as far back as the 1920s. Last year, she turned her visual investigation into a book and exhibition at MoMa’s recurring program of New Photography, making visible a subject that has historically been absent from public vernacular, let alone art and cultural history. Like menstruation, menopause, or abortion, birth is one of those essentially female experiences that, in our social imagination, is presumably discussed amongst girls and women in private.
Winant started to have conversations about childbirth with her mother when she became pregnant. As this new chapter of her life began to unfold, she questioned the reasons that had led her to seek her mother’s knowledge. “I was returning to my mother”, the artist recalls, “but not approaching her to ask her about her birth on its own terms, but rather so that I would be able to use it as a prism through which to be able to anticipate my own experience.” She remembers wondering: “Why am I not asking more women about their births beyond how it meets my own needs?”
“Birth lives in popular representations as a kind of satire... For me, it’s very deeply about the inculcated sexism that we hold about the worth of our own experiences as women” – Carmen Winant
What would a world in which men and women talked about childbirth casually look like? Imagine if people, regardless of whether they were or wished to be parents, discussed this freely. This is hard to envision because, though childbirth is a common experience, people are used to dramatised, inaccurate portrayals of it. “Birth lives in popular representations as a kind of satire”, Winant says, “the water breaks, she rushes to the hospital, often she is pushing, she is cursing at the doctor, and she shoots out the baby.”
“For me, it’s very deeply about the inculcated sexism that we hold about the worth of our own experiences as women,” she continues. Winant, whose work often explores women’s narratives, faced an additional challenge in addressing an experience that belongs to the indescribable, that which is hard to communicate to others via words. The project was compelled by a desire to overcome those limitations and make any knowledge around childbirth more visible and available.
Throughout her pregnancy, she visited as many garage sales, estate sales, bookstores, and libraries as she could. Online resources proved useful, though less reliable for rescuing archives. Winant also worked side by side with a network of birth workers across the country, including women who had written Our Bodies, Ourselves, a revolutionary health book from 1970 that offered honest discussions about women’s sexuality and anatomy.
That most of the material Winant collected is from the 1970s comes as no surprise. At the time, photographs of birth experiences were shot for educational purposes, in an effort to dismantle taboos and reclaim knowledge about the female body. “The idea was that I wouldn’t take from someone’s personal collection,” the artist explains, “everything in the installation was produced and meant to be disseminated, it already had in its DNA the need to circulate and the intention to be seen.”
Much like the exhibition design of My Birth, the walls of Winant’s studio in Columbus are saturated with the images she collects. She says it is a “compulsive thing” she inherited from her teenage years when she would completely cover her bedroom walls in photographs. While the artist’s visual practice now works with found imagery exclusively, this was not always the case. As an art student, Winant rejected the idea that a photographer could be somebody who did not author photographs. “I think, although I could not have articulated this to myself at the time, that part of the reason I didn’t want to do it is that it seemed crafty. It took me a long time to come around that.”
And yet dealing with archives comes with challenges: issues around representation surface repeatedly in Winant’s work. “My Birth” covers nearly a century of history through 2,000 found images but contains very few photographs of non-white and non-heterosexual women. The absence of depictions of non-vaginal births has also provoked criticism: “I heard from more than a small handful of women afterwards that they felt that they didn’t see themselves pictured,” Winant says.
I asked if diverse representations from that time are simply inexistent. “Yes, in some sense,” she muses. “In other ways, I don’t know that I dug hard enough. I do think that the onus is on me, as an artist, to do the research really and to dig as deep as I possibly can.”
Winant is still grappling with these shortcomings and found that acknowledging and discussing them helped. “My solution has been to talk about it every time I’m interviewed, talk about it in every wall text, to put it in every press release, to make sure that the language that supports the work always points to that.” The absence of certain images becomes a part of the work itself. “But lately I’ve been feeling that that is not enough,” she adds. “I don’t know what the solution is except that I feel like it has to enter into the work in a more visible way.”
Foam Talent’s exhibition in London, from 16 May – 16 June 2019. More details here