Brazilian Women Tell Their Stories of Illegal Abortions in Camila Cavalcante's "Nós Por Todas"
Camila Cavalcante is a UK-based Brazilian activist and photographer who has dedicated her career to documenting the lives of women who have been impacted by restrictive abortion laws. Camila's recent project, Nós Por Todas, (Portuguese for Us For All), explores the idea of the female body as a confrontational space and challenges the stereotypical narrative of women who receive abortions. By photographing the bodies of women who have had illegal abortions and sharing their experiences, Nós Por Todas works to bring urgency to the debate around women's reproductive rights in Brazil.
"Nós Por Todas is about reaching and supporting women around the world who are being judged and prosecuted because they dared to decide what to do with their own bodies." —Camila Cavalcante
With their identities protected, the 50 women of Nós Por Todasshared their experiences of abortion in Brazil, where it is an illegal procedure except in extreme cases. Camila took nude portraits with these women in their homes, holding and hugging them, with their back to the camera while she reveals her face, exposing her body and her identity in their name. The titles of the images refer to the year in which those women experienced an illegal abortion. Each image is followed by a quote from the conversations she had with each one of the collaborators as well as a personal observation from the artist about their encounter.
In Nós Por Todas the written word and performance of the portrait both serve to move away from the eroticization of the female body. Camila uses her body as a confrontational site, standing in for the woman who has received the abortion. Camila talks about the choice to be in her portraits:
"As a photographer, to confront the camera, as opposed to hiding behind it, was very challenging. Nevertheless, it was great to realise that however I felt about my own body or whatever other people think about the subject, I could face them. I could take the responsibility and create a very important debate. Exposing my face and my identity in their names is my way of supporting their pain and switching the focus of the judgement away from them."
For the Bodies issue of Boshemia Magazine in Summer 2018, I interviewed Camila about her photography project and activism. She shared with me her portraits from Nós Por Todas and how she is continuing her advocacy for reproductive justice today.
What inspired you to create Nós Por Todas / Us For All?
I have been a feminist for my whole adult life, but even though I try to bring social matters into my artistic practice, I never had explored women’s issues in my artwork before. About 2 and ½ years ago I felt compelled to do that because I saw the beginning of this feminist momentum. In Brazil, where I am from, women were taking the streets to protest against a conservative agenda to limit access to abortion on the very few cases in which it is legal. I felt that it was the time to take action and make a project that was more obviously feminist.
This is a subject that is really close to my heart. I was a witness to two women who have had an illegal abortion many years ago. That was the most difficult decision they had to make in their lives; a very heavy weight for two young women to carry. I tried to be there for them, I never judged them. But at the end of the day, they were the ones who carried the stigma, who couldn’t talk openly about their experience, who lived in the fear of being judged by the people who loved them. It happened with two friends, but it could have happened to me. This is my way to share that weight with them. This project is for them too.
Over the years you have taken photos with and for these women, what stories have been most profound to you?
A lot of the stories are very similar; there is a huge pattern of male abandonment or lack of commitment. There are a lot of failed contraceptives as well. Each story, however, is very unique in their own way. I interviewed a woman who was in a very precarious financial position and was new in town, so she had no emotional support. She spent nearly 3 months having to deal with an unwanted pregnancy, emotional blackmail from her partner and finding money for a procedure that was illegal. When she finally did it, lots of things went wrong and she was taken to hospital, just to be blackmailed by the doctors as well.
Another case that touched me was of a woman who was happily married and had two kids already when she found out she was pregnant. As they were going through their worst time financially, and could barely afford to pay for their basic needs, abortion was a rational and objective decision. It was exactly because she was a happy mother that she knew it was the wrong time.
There were also a couple of women who were sexually abused and later found out that they got pregnant. Even though the legislation in Brazil allows abortion in cases of rape, it’s very complicated for a woman to fight and make use of that right. Most of them don’t even know how to start or are too embarrassed to come forward publicly. They end up resorting to illegal methods to go through with the abortion.
The resilience of these women is something admirable and I feel very inspired and moved by each one of them.
You began taking photographs for Nós Por Todas in 2016 — how has your project evolved with time? How have you evolved since the work began?
When I started photographing, I thought this project would be like any other I have done in the past, but that was not the case at all. As soon as I met the first woman and started interviewing her and taking pictures, I realised that the outcome of this project in that moment was almost irrelevant. Those women were sharing with me the biggest secrets of their lives, they were telling me things that they could not tell to their families and friends, they were opening up and deeply trusting me. That was the most important thing: the catharsis that sharing their story made them feel. Even if I didn’t have an exhibition or a book or no one else saw those images, I know that I helped them somehow. For my artistic self that was freedom, because I realised that my commitment with those women was bigger than my need for an audience.
Now I am working hard to share their stories because I want to help breaking the stereotypes that are associated with those women. I want people to open their minds to hear their stories, because on the debate around abortion there is very little empathy for the women.
Through your project, you have created a network of women who have bravely endured illegal abortions in Brazil. What does this community look like? Do these women stay connected or collaborate?
Yeah, that network is what really supports them. Especially in recent years, with social media and bigger visibility of feminist groups. They share tips about the procedure itself, where to get Misoprostol—one drug used to induce labour and cause abortion—and even what to say to the doctors if you have to be taken to hospital. In some cities that connection is stronger than others, but there is often a sense of sisterhood between them and that was really beautiful to witness. One woman helping another; some friendships were born and others never contacted again. The important thing was to be there when they needed. Again, it’s all about empathy.
What are your hopes for Nós Por Todas?
I am hoping that this project doesn’t end now that I have collaborated with 50 women. I want to spread the word about it, to go to schools and talk about this subject with kids and young women. I want to go to different countries and share these stories, hear new ones, expand my approach. Women’s reproductive rights are often taken for granted by many people in countries like the UK. However, limiting access to legal and safe abortions, or prohibiting it all together has a lot to do with restricting women’s sexuality and disrespecting women’s human rights. This is not only happening in Brazil, but all around the world in countries like Chile, El Salvador, Poland, Philippines, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, amongst many other countries.
If we want a world in which each woman can decide what to do with their own bodies, we need to work together, listen and support each other. I hope Nós Por Todas keeps doing that.
Nós Por Todas presents intimate portraits of women who have endured illegal abortions without support, resources, or community to help them. Camila is incredibly brave to be the face and name of these women, and her collaborators are courageous to share their abortion experiences and bodies with the world. Nós Por Todas is a vital dialogue in the ever-urgent fight for women's reproductive freedoms.
Camila's bilingual photography book, For The Lives of All Women—forthcoming from Break the Habit Press—encompasses her interviews and photographs of 50 Brazilian women taken from 2016 to 2018. Her book will launch on March 8th, 2019, on International Women's Day. Camila is currently taking donations to support the launch of her book. To donate, see her crowdfunding campaign here.