All pictures by Susan Meiselas

ART AND CULTURE

Powerful photographs of life inside a women’s shelter

Renowned photographer Susan Meiselas spent six months in a women's shelter in the Black Country. “The issue is: what can you contribute?" she tells Marisa Bate

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By Marisa Bate on

The West Midlands has the highest rate of domestic violence in the UK, according to research from the Office For National Statistics released at the end of last year, with 7.33 cases per 100 adults. A domestic-violence call is made to the police every 12 minutes. 

This was what led the renowned, award-winning American Magnum Photos photographer Susan Meiselas to spend a total of six months in one of the region’s women’s shelters, taking photographs and working with the women in creative workshops, along with local artists and writers, to help them tell their own stories. Meiselas was approached by Multistory, an arts organisation in the Black Country, which offered her an open invitation to generate a project around the region. The alarmingly high numbers caught Meiselas’ attention. 

 

We were strangers listening. And that’s a valued asset at times in your life when you feel like no one cares

The project resulted in a book which features Meiselas' photographs of, and interviews with, the women in the shelter, as well as artworks created by the women themselves, such as stories told from cut-up magazine and newspaper headlines, and diary entries. How did the women feel about you being there? “Every woman didn’t respond the same way,” Meiselas tells me over the phone, in London. “I wasn't expecting everyone to jump in, but I think progressively they did and it was a rewarding experience to meet each other and do things together. They had a chance to do something different from what daily life demands and that is always appealing. And we were strangers listening. And that’s a valued asset at times in your life when you feel like no one cares.”

Meiselas' pictures echo that feeling of abandonment. There’s a starkness, an emptiness – the feeling that these women and their children have been left behind, forgotten. Does she still feel moved when she sees things like this? Meiselas has been a member of the international co-operative Magnum Photos since 1976. She’s photographed civil wars and devastated, persecuted communities for years. “Yes. And I think the best work you can make is because you are moved.” 

A documentary photographer, Meiselas spent time in the 1980s in central and south America, following the people’s revolution in Nicaragua and the civil war in El Salvador. She photographed the “dirty war” in Argentina and the end of Pinochet’s regime in Chile. In the 1990s, she built an archival history of the displaced Kurdish people – collecting maps, personal stories and documents – in response to Saddam Hussein’s genocidal campaign. Evidently, her work seeks to serve a purpose. “The issue is: what can you contribute? We’ve contributed in this particular way with this very specific approach. Will it convince the government, the public, charity funds to give the support that such an institution needs? I can only hope for that. I can’t guarantee that.” 

“Public funding cuts are definitely damaging their service capacity," Meiselas tells me, but she also says there are other ways of supporting shelters. “Almost everyone’s homes are filled with things they don’t need, and which those women, when they rebuild their lives, do need.” 

Many of the pictures document the children’s experience of living in a shelter. How did they seem? “A lot of the children had no idea where they were. It was kind of like a camp. They were racing around the halls. For the most part, the parents try and keep them in the school they are in, even if that means more transportation – so, normalising those lives the best they can.” 

But Meiselas recognises “normalising” is a challenge. “The rupture of a life is terribly difficult. It demands a lot from each of those women’s own capacity – whatever those institutions provide.” 

 

A Room of Their Own is a partnership project with Multistory and Creative Black Country (as part of the Arts Council of England's Creative People and Places Programme). Multistory is supported by Sandwell Council and Arts Council England. You can buy a Room of Their Own here.

Multistory is an ambitious community arts organisation based in West Bromwich, as part of an ongoing body of photographic work and digital archive that documents life in Sandwell and the Black Country. 

@marisajbate

All pictures by Susan Meiselas
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violence against women and girls

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