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Words Holly Houlton

Photography Rosie Dale

Ad Astra

Rosie Dale’s latest project Ad Astra is a photographic response to a very important conversation shared with her mother a year ago where she disclosed to Rosie an abortion she had just after finishing her RAF training in 1990.

The beautifully composed black and white landscape images provide symbolism of healing and personal emotions felt by her mother about the subject, combined with RAF images that bring context to her mother’s background and reference the thousands of women who were dismissed from the armed forces as a result of a pregnancy prior to 1990.

Holly interviewed Rosie about the ongoing project; discussing her methodologies and her approach to investigating the topic with her mother.

‘Ad Astra’ represents the difficult experience your mother had with abortion in the 1990s and how the discussion of this between you both has given you a greater insight into the relationship you have with her.
You mention in your project statement that she ‘opened up’ during a conversation ‘a year ago’ – may I ask how this came about, having her kept it private all this time?

It actually came about when we were watching a film together. There was one scene where the main character was debating whether to keep her child or get an abortion, and this sparked a very emotional response from my mum. While it was a poignant scene, I could tell that her response wasn’t entirely due the film. So I asked why she was getting so upset and she told me about her decision to get an abortion when she was younger, and how the movie reminded her of when she had to make the same decision, and how difficult it was to make. 

As your mother is the key focus in the work, how has she felt about featuring in the project? Would you say the series has become a collaborative project or your mother has become the subject of the work?

My mother actually gave me the idea of looking into this subject area, so she was very supportive and helpful when it came to making the work, she recognised that it’s an important topic to talk about. The only thing she was a bit worried about, and still is, was that people would judge her on the decision she made. This is why I haven’t included any images where my mum could be identified, but the responses from our friends and family that have found out have been very supportive, and I think she is glad that she has finally been able to open up about it. 

I think I started out by working on my own, but I quickly realised that in order to portray my mum’s voice correctly, it would need to be more of a collaboration. So I started going on walks with my mum while photographing and talking about her experience with abortion. I think this helped to translate my mother’s emotion into the images, as it was all fresh in my mind while I was taking the photographs. So while I was the one deciding what to take pictures of, it was the company and input from my mum that made the images stronger.

From Ad Astra ©Rosie Dale
From Ad Astra ©Rosie Dale

I’ve noticed there’s a lot of varying imagery within the body of work, some that would seem to be more literal in narrative such as the image of a woman in an RAF uniform, but also some of which perhaps appear to be more symbolic such as the many landscape-focused photographs. I was wondering if you could share why you focused on capturing these landscapes and their relevance to the project?

All of the landscape images were taken in locations that hold meaning to my mum. She would tell me that being out in the countryside and at the coast brings her peace and that water also holds a lot of symbolism around the passage of time and healing. So to me, the landscape images are much more personal and emotive, while the RAF images bring context to her life at the time, also making reference to the thousands of women dismissed from the armed forces on the grounds of pregnancy prior to 1990. This was another influencing factor when she made her decision.

From Ad Astra ©Rosie Dale

Whilst we’re on the topic of symbolic imagery, are there any practitioners or pieces of art that you would say inspired you to help create the work?

For sure, I’ve found that I have ended up looking at mainly female artists, which was unintentional, but makes sense due to the subject area.

I’d say that Laia Abril’s work ‘On Abortion’ was one of my main influences when creating this work. Her extensive research into the subject of abortion, showing the repercussions of unsafe abortions that effects women around the world was so compelling, but also slightly uncomfortable; it made me angry and want to change things. I wanted my work to have a similar balance, but looking at an individual story rather that multiple. 

I also took a lot of inspiration from Clare Hewitt’s work ‘Eugenie’. Her images are delicate and emotive, perfectly capturing Eugenie’s grief and loss and strength and I have found that my work has ended up looking into similar themes. 

Elena Helfrecht’s work ‘Plexus’ also kept coming to mind while I was shooting. I think her images are so beautiful, and to me the strength of her imagery comes from the significance of the location it was photographed in and the use of her family archive, which is one of the reasons I found the location of my shoots so important. 

I’d say those works were the main sources of inspiration for me when creating this project.

You mentioned the contextual images depicting RAF settings reference the thousands of women who were dismissed from work, before 1990, on the basis of being pregnant. This must have been incredibly difficult for your mother and the others it affected, how would you say the work has been received in the UK or by other women?

Well I don’t think my work has been seen by that many people so far, but everyone that I have spoken to has been very positive about it; I haven’t heard any judgement towards my mother’s decision like she was expecting to get. I have also had a couple of messages from women who had similar experiences to my mum, and they said that this work gave them some reassurance that they weren’t alone and hope that their children and friends would be understanding towards their decision if they ever came to tell them. It was really lovely to receive those messages; if these images give anyone some peace of mind and solidarity over their decision to get an abortion then making this work has been worthwhile.   

Aside from that, the main response I’ve gotten is that people didn’t realise how recently the rules surrounding pregnancy in the forces had changed. While my mum wasn’t one of the women dismissed from service, the worry of losing her job did make her decide fairly quickly when she became pregnant. 

From Ad Astra ©Rosie Dale
From Ad Astra ©Rosie Dale

Alongside this project and your practice, often using a personal approach, you identify focusing on themes relating to philosophy and ethics – would you say you consciously make projects surrounding such topics and if so, why?

No, I didn’t actually realise that my work was focused around these topics until I was making my website and could see all of my work in one place! I generally just make photos of things that I am passionate about- I use photography as a way for me to research into and learn about subjects that I probably wouldn’t put time towards looking into otherwise. For example, I have previously looked into exorcism and existentialism, both of which I had almost no prior knowledge of, but was just curious to know more about.

Overall, I am fascinated by existence and the rights and wrongs in life, so that is where philosophy and ethics must come in. I just love that photography gives me the opportunity to learn about anything I want to, and that it can provide a platform to speak about important issues that are faced around the world.

From Ad Astra ©Rosie Dale

With regards to the themes within your practice, and in relation to your point made about the ideal reception from viewers of ‘Ad Astra’ – do you have any plans or ideas for how you would like to progress this work in terms of dissemination or the context of exhibiting the work?

Eventually I would love to make this work into a photobook. I think it would work really well with the story I am trying to tell, and I just love the process of making books, although I am not very good at it yet! I also have been very lucky in the fact that I have been chosen as one of the 4 Carte Blanche laureates for Paris Photo this year, so my work will end up being exhibited at the Gare du Nord in Paris this November, which I am very excited about! It will be really interesting to see how the project translates once it’s printed, as I haven’t been able to see it printed yet due to Covid. 

Aside from that I don’t have any plans to exhibit it at the moment, however it would be really nice to be able to put on a degree show exhibition with the rest of my course to showcase and celebrate our work from the past three years, so that will be something to look into in the next year.

If we then talk about the audience for the project, would you be interested in extending the body of work to include other participants who had similar experiences to your mother? Or do you feel that it’s a closed project between yourself and your mother, that touches on a universal theme?

I am definitely looking into extending this work to look at involving other women with similar experiences, I think it would be really interesting to hear from other people and make the work a much wider collaboration. However, I feel like doing this may end up evolving into a separate piece of work that maybe goes alongside the work on my mother, I will have to see how it goes!

Thank you so much for giving us a fantastic insight into the project and good luck for the future. To finish, I just wanted to ask – what are your current plans for the next year in reference to your practice and career?

No worries, thank you for taking the time to ask me these brilliant questions! At the moment my future plans are quite flexible. I’m hoping to just keep gaining more experience and hopefully get some work from my photography, while also continuing to work on this current project, as I feel like there is still a lot to look into with it.

I also would really like to get some more experience in the world of photo books; editing and sequencing them as well as the making and binding of them. Ultimately, I want to keep learning and try and take up any opportunity that comes my way!

Holly Houlton

Holly is a writer and photographer. Her photographic work mainly explores the subjects of people and place. She is also a passionate writer of photography in both the journalistic and academic form.

Rosie Dale

Rosie Dale is a photographer based in the South West of England. Her work is created through an intuitive process, often focusing on themes relating to philosophy, ethics and her own personal relationships.

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