This project, We Want Them Alive (Vivas Las Queremos) was originally titled We Are All Them (Todos Somos Ellas)
Todos somos ellas
A Photographic Project by Paul Owen
In the late 1930s Virginia Woolf stated that to assume an “us” between men and women was fraught with risks, especially issues relating to war and violence. Sixty years later, the feminist struggle–at least that undertaken by the feminism of difference--which seeks to differentiate between murders targeted exclusively against women (femicide) and violent acts that are of a more general nature (homicide) seems to reinforce Woolf´s claim: not only should rules respond to different situations but descriptions themselves should likewise acknowledge this difference and complexity. Femicide is not just murder, it is a violent crime which exclusively affects women. The attack is centered on the female subject mainly because of her feminine condition. These slaughtered women represent the culmination of a broad and long chain of gender violence manifested as acts so ingrained that they have become–or have been made--invisible by the rest of society. In this context, how can Paul Owen claim “We Are All Them?”
Paul Owen’s photographs are a response to Virginia Woolf practically at a century’s remove. The images assert that thinking about an us is possible without having to appeal to a discourse of assimilation or homogeneity. Owen photographs women from a masculine perspective, through a sensitive lens that acknowledges their difference and avoids violent reactions as a response to this otherness. His pictures are symbols of a possible alliance, an altered complicity that transcends sexual differences; His images invite us to become more than passive witnesses who remain in silence. Owen offers us the possibility of becoming emancipated spectators; a collective in which them, him, her, and all of us recognize our shared condition of vulnerability.
Paul Owen’s photographs allow the emergence of a multiplicity of messages, of languages, of voices. On the one hand, one can listen to the message of denunciation, of a voice that accuses society’s self-imposed blindness-–by covering its eyes--towards this gender-centered violence. We see the scream of the woman who positions herself in the center of the frame, abandoning her peripheral and marginal condition, appealing for a place, central, unavoidable; making it impossible to ignore her. Placing female bodies in the center of the frame is a reflection of the possibility of placing women at the core of the issue of femicide, adressing therefore the particularity of these acts of violence. In the end, the victims are women. Only women. On the other hand, centrality is also a metaphor for empowerment. Becoming central implies the cessation of being silent as passive victims, thereby becoming active denouncers. One can also hear the painful cry, simbolized by the almost instinctive and child-like reaction of covering one’s eyes, of shielding oneself from something so ovewhelming that it hurts the eyes, something so deep it pains the heart. By covering our eyes we revert to being children with the hope that something scary can go away.
Paul Owen’s photographs denounce violence without being violent. They are a claim for recognition without institutional demands or legal recourse; they are testimony to a pain so deep and strong that they transcend the act of weeping; they are an encouragement to feel, to share, to take action, but most importantly, to be, to “become all of them”..
As with poetry, photography opens up the possibility of expressing that which is difficult--even impossible--to articulate in prose; it becomes one of those sensitive spaces that, as Žižek (Slavoj, Violence. 2008) would argue, allow one to counter-argue Adorno’s claim that poetry is impossible after Auschwitz. When faced with trauma and devastating pain, poetry is all that is left; when absolute silence is imposed, music is what breaks it; when violence paralyses, dance brings back the movement to static bodies; when faced with an overwhelmingly cruel society, photography, literature, fiction, and dreams become the sole means of resistance.
Isabel Gil Everaert
New York University
Review of Paul Owen's Todos Somos Ellas
by Alma Maria Rinasz
The photographic exhibition currently showing at the Palacio Clavijero in Morelia, Michoacán, Mexico, is photographer Paul Owen’s attempt to “bring particular attention to the violence against women taking place in Mexico to help bring about the eradication of feminicide throughout the world.” With a concise and illuminating introduction by Isabel Gil Everaert, this interactive project forces the onlooker to reflect and ask questions. The sixty large scale photographs, with female images at the center of the frame portray fear, sadness, supplication, anger, self-defensive indignation and powerlessness. One photograph shows a clenched fisted woman, shifting her weight onto one leg, as if she were going to step towards the onlooker. Her body language says “I will protect myself and I will fight back.”
In another photograph, we see a viejita madrone colored hands cover her face while a light blue shall, drapes over her head like so many women when they enter el templo (church) to pray . The sepia toned backdrop contrasts the blue of her shall, the same sky blue associated with the Virgin of Guadalupe. In another photograph, the Virgin makes an appearance, her face is not covered, but the woman’s next her is. Mexican women beg the Virgin for help, in real life and on television. La Virgincita is there when no one else is, silent and present. In the photograph of the viejtia, there is no observable facial characteristic. Is this a woman or a faceless ser, a being from another realm, wandering the streets, penitent and supplicant, like La Llorona? Is she asking for forgiveness or is she asking for help? Or is she the Virgin’s intercessor, sent to be seen so we react, so we do something about all this violence against women?
As a nod to Michoacan's largest ethnic minority, the purepechas, some of the women photographed are using the traditional güare's rebozo or shall. And then there are the younger female subjects, teenagers and girls, their faces covered, some in motion, as if they are just about to walk away, others stand, reminders that Mexico does not just have a serious problem with feminicide, but also with human trafficking of women and children.
The Michoacan state government supported Owen’s show, a show that denounces feminicide yet the state government does little to protect women’s rights. Abortion is penalized in Michoacan. Women are also systemically denied the right to choose how to birth. In the photographs where women are holding their abdomens, I wonder if any of those women have experienced abuse in government run hospitals and clinics in Michoacan. Access to health and reproductive care are limited and de-humanizing treatment by hospital officials and staff is the norm. The Women’s Hospital in Morelia is notorious for denying birthing mothers the right to have a family member or coach accompany them during labor. Women are lined up in the waiting room and once admitted, left to sit alone while the staff discusses their most recent personal anecdotes.
Perhaps if Paul Owen were to focus his lens on how women are treated in these government run hospitals, women’s reproductive rights in Michoacan (or lack thereof) would be taken seriously by the government. If he were to visit the Women’s Hospital he would see how women are not only the victims of violence perpetuated by their husbands, boyfriends, lovers, family members and organized crime but also of their own government. And almost as a foreshadowing of this thought, one of the photographed women, a nurse, her white uniform and nurse’s cap a testimony to institutionalized identity, holds her abdomen, maybe this is a message to those of us who know the reality of women’s lives in Michoacan. “I am a part of the problem” she seems to say “and I am ashamed by this knowledge.”
Mexico is portrayed in the media as rife with violence and in Paul Owen’s own country there is a notorious war on women. Historically, US-Mexico relations have had racist over and undertones. It is projected that in 30 years, a quarter of the US population will be ethnically Latino. Within this context, Owen’s photographs could be seen as in fact facilitating international relations between the two countries. He has shown the many faceless women in Mexico, of diverse social levels and ethinic orgins, who all are and can be victims of violence and silent complacency. Todos somos ellas, meaning we are all them, shows us that what happens to women, happens to all of us. Violence, feminicide, human rights; these are cross-cultural issues. The photographs are an invitation to dialogue about feminicide on a worldwide scale, but also an outright demostration of how Mexican society and government knows that this is happening but is doing very little to change it.
Todos somos ellas will be showing at Palacio Clavijero from July 19th to August 31st, 2013 in Morelia, Michoacan, Mexico.
Alma M. Rinasz