The artist’s latest photo exhibition creates a visual language countering that of the anti-choice movement
The photographs in Carmen Winant’s latest exhibition look like snapshots from a corporate office. Women answer phones, sort through files, and jot down notes on loose sheets of paper. A doctor checks a patient’s blood pressure, a woman demonstrates how to use a medical device. But the exhibition’s dramatic title—The last safe abortion—elucidates the hundreds of images plastered on the walls of the Minneapolis Institute of Art as something less mundane.
Winant lives in Columbus, where she is an associate professor and the Roy Lichtenstein Chair of Studio Art at Ohio State University. In putting the exhibition together, she often thought about the anti-abortion protests that had flared up on her campus. “They’re out there with their huge poster boards,” she explains. “Their propaganda—it’s all photographic.”
Winant recognizes the centrality of photography in the anti-choice movement. The visual language of anti-abortion lobbying—of bloodied fetuses and helpless infants, of merciless doctors and monstrous metal tools—is as sensational as it is inaccurate. With The last safe abortion, Winant wanted to construct an alternate canon of abortion photography. “I think that pro-choice folks have been really slow to think about—not necessarily how to weaponize photography and art—but how to think through photography, how to harness images, how to countermand the strategy [of the anti-choice movement],” she says.
Instead of countering anti-choice propaganda with equally exaggerated visuals, Winant chose to focus on the administrative realities of abortions in America—hence the medical forms, waiting rooms, and endless phone calls. “It’s one thing to throw in really sensational images,” she says. “It’s another to think about the visuality of abortion care. What does that look like?”
She visited abortion clinics, historical societies, and university collections to gather materials for her project. In her research, she took an expansive approach to sourcing materials. “In clinics, maybe they have an archive, but they don’t call it an archive,” she posits. “They call it a storage unit, and it’s filled to the brim with boxes.”
While she trawled through historical records, Winant also photographed present-day abortion providers. The process involved reaching out to feminist organizers in Ohio, spending days at abortion care centers across the Midwest, and forming relationships with her subjects. Her process reflects her belief that an artist’s input can be just as transformative as their output. “It’s not just work that’s about solidarity,” she says. “[Solidarity] happens through the work.”
The concept of work runs through both sides of the abortion debate. The last safe abortion unveils the overlooked networks of labor that go into providing the care: jobs that are simultaneously momentous and mundane. Anti-abortion imagery, on the other hand, attempts to obscure labor—to turn a blind eye to the bureaucratic tasks that go into providing abortion care, to gloss over the strains of pregnancy, and, most troublingly, to whitewash the work that goes into raising a child. Winant muses on how becoming a parent revolutionized her own creative process. “Motherhood has shaped my politics and my art,” she proclaims. “[It’s changed] how I think about myself as a neighbor and a citizen and an educator.”
“I really want to think about how [motherhood] informs the projects I take on, but perhaps more importantly, how it informs the way that I work hour to hour.”
After the birth of their children, Winant and her partner, who is also an artist, had to move their studios into their homes. The multi-week expeditions she used to undertake for research were no longer feasible. With her time and resources now allocated elsewhere, Winant had to reimagine the way she made art.
“I wish that I had heard more people talk about that when I was a student,” she says. “If someone was a mother, it was barely mentioned, or if it was, it was like, Can you believe she does this in spite of that? I really want to think about how [motherhood] informs the projects I take on, but perhaps more importantly, how it informs the way that I work hour to hour.”
She sees reflections of her postpartum process in the work of female artists that came before her. “I think about a lot of feminist artists who have—in ways that I don’t think art history has even wrapped its head around—responded to motherhood,” she continues. “Not just through their art in terms of its subject, but in terms of their means in the moment.”
By detailing the major impacts of motherhood, Winant makes the right to be pregnant and the right to have an abortion inextricable. She points out that four out of six women who get abortions in the United States are already mothers. Winant herself is part of that statistic: She had her abortion after the birth of her first child. “It feels really meaningful for me to connect [birth and abortion],” she says. “Not only in the sense of getting to choose whether you want to be a parent or not. But also getting to choose the extent of your motherhood—precisely because you’re aware of its stakes.”