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Jane Evelyn Awood's exibition

I went to see the Jane Evelyn Atwood exhibition at Botanique and I was completely overwhelmed by it.


I wanted to strongly recommend it to all of you, as it is rare that we have the opportunity to see such an extraordinary artist exhibited in Brussels.

Given the strong women theme, I decided to write something about it on this website.


So, here are a few thoughts and remarks on the exhibition that might hopefully persuade you to go and see it.


Jane Evelyn Atwood is an American photographer who lives and works in Paris.

Her work is divided in themes and behind each one there are years of research and dedication.

One might define her work as a kind of photo reportage, but she doesn’t like this title. She sees herself as a photographer of projects.

And I would tend to agree with that.

Most photographers search for and try to capture the beauty in each person, object, scenery.

They try to make people who are un-beautiful to the ordinary, lazy eye, beautiful. The idea being that everyone is beautiful if you search for their beauty.

The striking thing about Atwood is what she doesn’t do this. She does not aim to please. She does not present herself as superior to others unlike other photographers who ‘take the time to find the interesting elements of each person’.

She just presents the way things are. The way things are to the ordinary, lazy, uncaring, untrained eye. Her subjects are not made to be beautiful, likeable.


Her photographs are not aimed to be technically perfect or to play tricks to the eye. They just are a presentation of what people see.The most important and most powerful part of the exhibition is her black and white work on women in prison.

Apparently this project lasted for around 10 years and shows life in women prisons in the US and several European countries. This is a very important feminist project.


There are 3 elements that I found particularly powerful: The first is that women seem to be most often imprisoned because of a man. They have been either sexually, physically, emotionally abused by men for years which led to them being ‘fucked up’ or to take revenge towards the abusive man.

The photo of a woman who shot her husband several times before he finally died is exceptional.

She seems to have no regrets. She will be in prison for 20 years, she will not see her children during this time, but still no regrets. No anger. No pain. Just patiently waiting for the twenty years to pass so that she can go out of prison and be ‘free’ for the first time in her life.


Second element is the different practice that seems to be followed in women’s prisons, which is one of humiliation, especially sexual one, rather than one of reform, completely different to men’s prisons.

Women are shown in Atwood’s photos being made to lie naked on the floor, their vaginas examined by a gynecologist after each visit they have, huge male prison wardens disciplining them.

And the women seem completely powerless. They seem to just do as they are told, try to live day-by-day, swallowing their pain without anger.


The third element is how these women appear to spend their time in prison.

They are pictured doing little pick-nicks in the yard, sunbathing, washing themselves, decorating their cells with curtains and beautiful things.

There is a quietness and a peacefulness about their daily activities, which is again a striking difference to male prisons. But which is also the striking difference between men and women outside prisons.

The other project which was quite unique was the photographing of blind people, again in black and white. Blind people don’t know how to pose, they don’t know which side of them looks better and they have not trained themselves to try to look good even when not posing, but rather just doing their daily activities.


And again she has not aimed to beautify them, but rather to just capture them the way we see them, often sticking out from the ‘norms’ because of their inability to know what a ‘norm’ is supposed to look like.In these two black and white projects, it is very interesting that there is a detachment between the viewer and the subject.

Yes, the viewer becomes emotionally involved, but at the same time it is clear that the picture is happening somewhere else and the viewer has nothing to do with it. The viewer is unable to help.

We feel horrible that the kind of things shown in the photos are happening, but also feel unable to reach out and help.


However, the final, project on Haiti is completely different to the other projects.

The photographs are in colour, which gives a momentary doubt whether it is the same photographer who took these pictures. But once you take a good look at the first picture, you know it is her.

You can see Atwood’s eye through the lens. And the way that the photographs are taken is completely different.

Here the viewer feels part of the photo. We want to reach out our hand and touch these people. There is a photograph of a black man with reddish dirt on his back, and we just want to reach our hand and wipe the dirt of his back.

He is sitting in this poor shattered shed alone, and we just want to touch him, do a simple thing, offer a caring second. There is another photo of an elderly man trying to go up a single step and the viewer is made to just want to give him a hand.

Just a simple gesture lasting half a minute that would help this man go where he is trying to go.


So, going out of the exhibition I was lost for words.

Did I ‘like’ the exhibition. No, I didn’t.

I was overwhelmed, touched to the core, struck. It was one of the most important exhibitions I saw in a very long time, and I would certainty go and see it again, and again.

But, no, there was nothing to ‘like’ about the exhibition.

Anyway, it is on at Botanique until 12.01.2014.


Please, go and see it. 





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