For Autograph’s commissioning project Critical Times: Dialogues in Contemporary Photograph, artist Laura El-Tantawy has created a short film and a new series of photographs. Her commission, She Fights in the Fields is the latest instalment in the artist's extensive series I’ll Die For You — a long-term body of work which explores climate change through the experience of small farming communities and the intimate bond between them and the land.
Here, the artist speaks about the commission with Autograph curators Renée Mussai and Bindi Vora, discussing the after-effects of Brexit and the Covid-19 pandemic on the mental health of UK farmers, with a particular emphasis on the experience of women and the challenges they face today.
Renée Mussai (RM): It's a pleasure to be working with you, Laura. Please kindly share your experience of collaborating with us on this artist commission as part of Critical Times – Dialogues in Contemporary Photography. Perhaps you could also tell us where the project sits within your wider practice, especially in relation to your ongoing series I'll Die For You?
Laura El-Tantawy (LET): I had wanted to explore farming in the UK, and specifically in England, for some time, and when the opportunity with this commission arose – given the themes around identity, climate change, the future – although the brief was broad, it was also specific enough to include the matters that I am exploring in this body of work.
RM: Were you focusing on women [farmers] previously, or foregrounding their plight in earlier works in the I'll Die For You series, or is this something that you developed in conversation with us while conceptualising the commission?
LET: I was not initially thinking about the particular direction that the project eventually took – that happened in the conversations we were having in the early development stages. The time to research as part of this commission was unique for me, and one thing I had hoped to get out of it was to adopt a new way of working. My [documentary] practice is based on being in the field – working in the field – with a clear understanding of the issues that I am going to address, but I prefer working from a more spontaneous place. So, this deep research, especially delving into historic material, was never part of my practice before and it was a direction that I wanted to explore more. With this commission, and the freedom and time I had, I was able to do that. When I began researching the Women's Land Army movement and reading They Fought in the Fields [by Nicola Tyrer, 1996] it became clear to me that focusing solely on women made sense for this project.
RM: This explains the title She Fights in the Fields – such a wonderful title, by the way – as inspired by Tyrer's book, and as a direct reference to the archival material you researched during the process of making of the work.
LET: Yes. I believe it was The Queen Mother who used the phrase "they fought in the fields" in a foreword about the Women's Land Army¹, praising the role of women during the Second World War, and how they were called upon to serve in the fields in order to produce food for the population when the men were fighting on the front line. I am always on the lookout for a good title [laughs], but also a title that has some emotional resonance. It is evocative and was certainly reflected in the conversations I was having with the women [farmers]: the idea that this is not just a job for them, but a way of life they have to fight for, to protect their space – our space – within it. It also speaks to the nature of farming and all the challenges that farmers in general face. It is a struggle. It is a fight. So, the title – from They Fought to She Fights in the Fields – developed organically as part of the research.
"I am aware that the imagery I create can border on abstraction and, given the issues that I deal with – which are often very sensitive, delicate and real – I always want to make sure they are brought back into reality"
RM: In terms women farmers' relationship to the land, I wonder if the politics of ecofeminism are of interest to you, or whether you thought about the specific relationship between gender, labour and the land while making the work?
LET: I am certainly thinking about it more now than I ever have before. Part of the exciting thing that happens when working on a long-term project or commissions of this kind is how much you learn during the process, and how much you take away from it on a personal level – in addition to the imagery created, of course. Speaking to the women and understanding how little focus there has been historically and traditionally on the role of women in farming, how rarely they are highlighted, has made me far more conscious and aware, not only regarding the situation here in England, but also I am certain in other countries, including those where I have previously explored suicides within farming communities, where a woman is left behind [after her husband's death] and she has to take over and take care of the family, the land and everything.
LET: The visual language I use in my work is one that is often impressionistic and navigates the boundaries of reality, but in a different way [to this commission]. I am aware that the imagery I create can border on abstraction and, given the issues that I deal with – which are often very sensitive, delicate and real – I always want to make sure they are brought back into reality. In that sense, grounding the title in the present moment – where we are today – was very important: to say that this is not a fight of the past, but one that is happening right now; we must be aware that these women are there, are living it. It is important for me to put this point across to the viewers, through the visual language.
Bindi Vora (BV): The visual language evokes a cycle or pattern, some of which is sinister and resonates with some of the more dialogical exposures you created across these layered pieces. How did you go about bringing forth a closer narrative that foregrounded the women and their stories?
LET: A key element for me are the voices of the women themselves. The way that I see the world through photography is unique to me; it's my view of the world. I am conscious that this can dominate and take over the narrative. I really tried to navigate that with as much responsibility as I could, in the sense that I wanted the women's own voices to be part of the project. This is very important to me: to marry my vision with their words.
BV: I am thinking about what you were just saying regarding the idea of language and the relationship between the ephemera that you collected during the initial research, especially the propaganda archive materials that emphasise the historical rhetoric. You then incorporate these as metaphorical hints that oscillate between the past, present and the future. Could you speak further about the sentiments that were shared in your interviews with the women, especially pertaining to the post-Brexit climate that they continue to navigate?
LET: As an inhabitant of the UK and witnessing Brexit, seeing the direction in which the country is moving is a lived experience for me. While propaganda was a dominant part of the messaging around the 'Leave' campaign, I was interested in the specific aspects pertinent to farming and how apparently the UK's farming community leant towards leaving the EU because it was not serving them well, etc. I really wanted to investigate this further. Was that true? Or was it just part of the propaganda we were led to believe to be true? And how much of that was also a deception? I am beginning to think that maybe the farmers were used and exploited for the Brexit agenda. These were very real, very political issues that can be quite difficult to approach.
BV: Absolutely. There is a heightened sensitivity towards the subject, and you carry great responsibility in making this work, especially as the story is still unfolding and is surrounded by much uncertainty. What was the process of collaging these pieces together like for you?
LET: I struggled at first, in the initial stages, while gathering all the protest materials. How do I integrate those elements with the new visuals, the kind of impressionistic visuals that you see in the images? Again, through the ongoing conversations we had, which were incredibly helpful for me, I came to this idea of developing a language that integrates the archive with the imagery already created. For me, this was the 'eureka moment' because it helped me to think through how my photography encompasses metaphors and incorporates different visual references and allowed me to explore what a memory or a thought might look like when we try to visualise it. This is what I tried to do by marrying the propaganda posters from the past with the images I was making today, creating something that almost looks like a blurry memory of those moments, with traces that point to the messaging that was communicated in the posters.
BV: How was this sentiment shared with the agricultural community you met?
LET: In the conversations I had with farmers, I finally got the chance to ask whether these sentiments are indeed true. At the same time, I was mindful of the fact that I did not want to intrude or probe too much into politics by asking directly whether they were pro-Brexit or anti-Brexit, for instance. This felt too intrusive and too personal. I wanted to ask them about the general sentiment within their community, and the answers confirmed that much of it was indeed a kind of propaganda, at least to a certain extent. Of course, some farmers were pro-Brexit, but many of them were not. A lot of the messaging was confusing, including to farmers who did vote for Brexit. Throughout my conversations [with the women], a collective sense of apprehension and blurriness between multiple truths emerged, and so I tried to play with that idea visually, to visualise this sense of looking and seeing through a blurry eye and being uncertain about things.
"I think farming is one of the least selfish ways of life […] It is fundamentally a collective endeavour. And it is about survival: survival of the land, but survival of the farmer(s) as well."
BV: If we circle back a little bit, could you tell us more about how you approached finding the women who participated in the project? What, if any, were the kinds of parameters that you set and did you encounter any difficulties?
LET: In the beginning, I tried to work through somebody I have known for several years, a mental health expert who works specifically with farmers. I also asked friends and started posting messages on Twitter and other social media. Because of the ongoing series I’ll Die For You, I was in a position where I could share links to previous work I have done in this area, so people could get a sense of the general mission and direction of the series. Eventually, the most helpful resource was the website justfarmers.org, which serves to connect people like me, journalists and others, directly with farmers. Once I met them, they introduced me to their neighbours, and so my network of contacts evolved organically.
RM: I wonder whether you experienced a sense of solidarity and kinship among the women you spoke with? We have talked previously about multiple challenges regarding inherent prejudices and gender bias, both within the farming community at large, and within the participants' own families.
LET: The [three] women who feature in the selection for the artist commission are not connected to each other. Two out of the six I photographed are friends and neighbours; they support each other emotionally, and help each other on the farm. All of them shared views on the impact of Brexit, and they all suffered in terms of labour shortages, such as 'farm hands' and casual workers [from Europe] employed during harvesting season. People must now rely more on each other and on their own network. In general – based on what I have learnt by working on this topic for many years in numerous different countries – I don't think competition, for example, is part of the spirit of farming, certainly not in small family farming, which is about survival and about supporting one another and making sure that they can make it through today, through this week, through the month, the year and so on, and make it through Covid, too.
RM: When we spoke earlier, you quoted one of the conversations you had with women farmers in which they described themselves as 'guardians of the land'. I love the deep sense of community activism conjured in this shared evocation of the farmers as protectors, as keepers, as custodians, and a praxis seemingly rooted in committed care and collective we-formations.
LET: That is an interesting point: in all the interviews, I spoke to the women in isolation, that is, it was just me talking to one of them. There was nobody else in the room or on the call. But their language consistently reflected a spirit of 'us'. They talked about farmers in general, rather than referring to 'my' farm or 'my story'. Even though I was asking questions specific to their personal experiences during the pandemic, or during Brexit, there was always a collective spirit. I think farming is one of the least selfish ways of life: it is about providing food for the public, the masses, waking up every single day when it is still dark, labouring to put food on other people's tables, and often working in isolation on your own. It is fundamentally a collective endeavour. And it is about survival: survival of the land, but survival of the farmer(s) as well.
BV: Survival in this context is especially interesting as it's not just about a sustained relationship with the land: it surpasses cultivation and becomes about adaptability as the 'environment' changes. As I reflect on the moving still video piece you have created, it is particularly poignant: it evokes myriad emotions and the melancholy of time passing. Could we talk about the relationship between the moving image and still photography for you?
LET: I was interested in combining photography, video, and audio in this commission: it is a direction I wish to explore further in my artistic practice in general. I try to integrate different formats as much as I can, as long as this interdisciplinary approach fits within the premise of the project. I continue to develop my visual language with regard to video and moving image, but what really excites me about video is pushing the boundaries of being a still photographer, seeing the world the way I see it, and working out how to articulate the same sentiment in a moving image. The language that I am currently exploring is what I would describe as 'slow video' or 'slow-moving imagery', almost like seeing a still image, but then imagining what that image might look like when it moves. I am not so interested in narrative editing, with a beginning, a middle and an end. I am much more interested in capturing a feeling, and seeing how a tree moves, and in which direction the leaves go as the wind blows, what they look like in the breeze. It is these kinds of little observations, the moments between the moments, that often go unnoticed. I was trying to evoke nature, capture its power and the dance that it performs with itself: a tree, a breeze, the movements of water. The core of the project are the voices of the women, speaking about big issues such as Brexit, Covid and climate change – aspects that I could not bring to the story myself. But there are these other elements that I feel and navigate, and which I try to marry with their words in a way that may be perceived as an emotional and evocative counterpart to something more serious in terms of what is happening to farming in the UK. A majority of the farmers I spoke with do not feel particularly positive about the future, the political agenda, the way the economy is going, the impact of Brexit, still unfolding and combined with the impact of Covid. I wanted to evoke all of these sentiments in both the still and moving imagery, but leaving room to pause and breathe as well.
BV: You spoke earlier about the multi-layered approaches you took in making this work, and wanting to incorporate the ephemera that formed part of your initial research, specifically the archival objects you photographed as stills. Why was this important?
LET: These objects from the collections of the English Museum of Rural Life [at the University of Reading in southern England] were the biggest surprise for me during the project development process. I was so impressed that such a resource even exists, that there is an archive dedicated to farming and rural life. The first time I went as a visitor, when looking at the objects I became incredibly excited by this idea of linking the past, the present and the future in the commission. How can we assess the future if we do not look back at our past and where we come from? I was intrigued by these old objects and their relationship to the history of farming: objects that people held in their hands, objects used to dig the land, to perform what was really hard labour then, and still is now. I really wanted to bring them into the narrative and working with still-life objects in a minimalist studio setting was a new path in the way I photograph. I have never really done still lifes before.
RM: And they do look great, as photographs in their own right, but they also manifest in the series as these potent symbols of resistance and insistence, and as haptic representations of the farming women's tools of labour in the past, animated in the present through the prism of your contemporary female photographic lens. They constitute a very important part of the series, I think.
LET: Yes, and I feel they also ground the series in reality again, because they are so minimal in the way that they are represented, especially when sitting side-by-side with the more abstract collage works and the double exposures. They bring the viewer back to reality: one does not dream for too long or go too far away. You kind of come back with them.
RM: One last question, Laura: as a visual activist you routinely use photography and lens-based media to raise awareness for socio-political causes: for instance, you have just returned from Malawi, where you worked on a campaign for WaterAid. If you had to summarise your mission, what do you wish to communicate to an audience about the women farmers' plights in England at this particular moment in time?
LET: First of all, just how difficult it is to be a woman and a farmer. Farming is such a dedicated way of life, where everything is beyond your control: the policies, the weather, the economy. Farmers have to adapt and be malleable in the way they farm, and wake up every single day prepared for change, where one has to be constantly creative, recreating themselves in order to survive. I really admire that. The other aspect, obviously, is the incredible challenges that the farming sector, particularly in this country, faces: the impact of Brexit and Covid, as well as climate change, which is the common denominator everywhere I have photographed. These issues are having an impact on farming now, but they are going to have an even greater impact on the sector in the future. When we eat our salad, do we think about the sourcing of the ingredients? Who farmed these vegetables, and how long did it take to grow and nurture this crop? What was that journey like for them? How many hands might have handled this produce before it arrives on my plate? If people one day look at this work and think more critically, even if only for a few minutes, if it inspires them to meditate on this idea, then it has served some kind of a purpose, small as it may be. My ambition, as with all my work, is to show something as truthfully and authentically as I have experienced it and share it with people. The rest is up to the viewers, what they take from it and what they decide to do with it.
RM / BV: It has been such a privilege and pleasure to think with and work with you. Thank you so much, Laura, for your energy, commitment and insight.
LET: Thank you. This has been an incredible experience for me. And it has been a delight working with both of you.
¹ Tyrer, N. (2008). They fought in the fields: the Women’s Land Army. Stroud, Gloucestershire: History Press.
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