Susan Meiselas, a member of the famed Magnum photographers’ collective, is best known for her ‘Molotov Man’ photograph, showing a man ready to throw a Molotov cocktail in one hand, while holding a rifle in the other, during the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua.
More recently she has been spending time in a women’s refuge in the West Midlands, UK, working collaboratively with women who were willing to share their stories.
The book begins with a definition: “Refuge: an institution that offers safe accommodation and support services for homeless and vulnerable women and their dependent children”.
Refuges, it goes on to say, are predicated on the principle that women must make their own decisions and that time must be given for women to safely consider and plan for their futures.
“A room of their own” follows the course of the refuge experience, beginning with an arrival and an empty room which will become more than a vacant space with the bare essentials.
The room becomes the new arrival’s private ground and it offers the prospect of launching a new life. A noticeboard on the wall, as seen in the photograph of Ritu’s room, is a vital space for pinning down – literally and metaphorically – the beginnings of a new direction in life.
The reasons for women arriving at the refuge centre vary. Aisha was being forced to get married to someone whose older brother had sexually abused her and when her parents found out she was in a relationship with someone else she was taken out of college: “I was really stressed and getting depressed and getting suicidal thoughts”.
Petra’s husband walks out on her and she cannot pay the rent. Rabia, in an arranged marriage, is deserted by her husband when their son is born but she is dealing with it: “He’s not coming back to me. I have to live alone. I don’t need to worry about anything.”
The empty rooms become personalized but the occupants are motivated to get their own place outside the refuge. The staff are there to help and to talk through situations and options. “I am proud of myself because I am still standing” says Rose; ‘It’s your right to be happy, not to have someone control you all the time’, reflects Amandeep.
The women’s stories are told in photographs as well as words and Meiselas’ camera becomes a narrative device for unfolding their plights and their possibilities; this is, like Corbyn, a story of hope instead of fear.
“A room of their own”, by Susan Meiselas with women in refuge, is published by Multistory, 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.
The book 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.