Photographer Glenna Gordon has traveled the world, documenting everything from Nigerian weddings and abandoned oil tankers on the African coast to white supremacist groups and the rise of Donald Trump.
Her work in the United States has focused on the uneasy intersection between personal freedom and government oversight, including access to abortions. Traveling to clinics with a camera, Gordon realized that the graphic images that anti-abortion protesters often display were wildly misleading, and that she didn’t actually know where to go to see accurate photographs of abortions. She set out to make such images herself.
“One of the hardest thing about photographing abortion is that it's not high drama,” she told BuzzFeed News. “Someone goes to a doctor’s appointment, and then they come back.”
Her work documenting abortions led her across the US, sometimes following the doctors and patients who travel outside their home states to provide or seek abortion care.
“With all of these pictures, my goal as a photographer was always to show you something that you didn't know,” she added. "Most people don't know what a fetus looks like. Abortion takes place behind closed doors — for medical privacy and for safety — but I also believe something is gained by creating visuals for this process."
Since Gordon began her photo series, some states have passed even more restrictive laws. Texas outlawed abortions after fetal cardiac activity can be detected, usually around the sixth week of a pregnancy, and an Oklahoma law will make performing an abortion a felony punishable by up to 10 years in prison starting this summer. The Supreme Court has yet to rule on a Mississippi law that bans abortion at 15 weeks, a decision that will have national implications and could overturn Roe v. Wade, the landmark case that made abortion legal nationwide in 1973.
We spoke with Gordon in April about how her photography evolved from covering white supremacy to reproductive rights, and the misinformation she’s aiming to confront with her work.
What was the process of photographing abortion? It's not only controversial, but it happens behind closed doors.
It was hard to access, and it was hard to make dynamic pictures. The first time I did an abortion story was in Alabama in 2018. The Alabama legislature was pushing what was at the time the most prohibitive abortion legislation in the country. Now, it's not even the worst we have [as far as abortion laws in the country go]. The legislature was primarily white men making laws about women's bodies, and the governor at the time was Kay Ivey. Women are often complicit in white supremacy and the patriarchal agenda — it's all just so enmeshed. While I was in Alabama, I started reporting and photographing at a clinic that serves women from as far as Texas and Florida. Even when I took these pictures back in 2019, then there were already lots of people who crossed state lines for abortions. Working at the clinic in Montgomery, I was able to follow a doctor who traveled more than a thousand miles from New England to give abortions. Along with an acute shortage of OB-GYNs to provide women's healthcare in general, especially in the south, there are further restrictions on who can provide abortions and where, making access harder to come by, especially in rural areas.
The women were traveling as well?
When I photographed that first abortion story, I met women who were coming from a couple of hours away. I was learning more and more about what women went through to get abortions. This was all before our current legislative moment, so the need to travel for reproductive healthcare is only going to increase exponentially. The primary obstacles are time and money. While it's of course extremely expensive to have a child, it's also difficult to suddenly raise $1,000 or more (for the clinic bill and travel costs) and take time off of work. Most of the women I spoke to who had had abortions already had other children, and so they were also arranging childcare.
And once women arrive at the clinic, they’re walking a gauntlet to enter, there are folks yelling and screaming and telling women they are murderers, chanting things like, “Your baby has a name!” The anti-abortion protesters are incredibly aggressive. The clinics regularly have to get restraining orders, hire security, have volunteer escorts to help women get inside, etc. At the clinic in Montgomery, the volunteers even have to cover all the license plates in the parking lot with Post-it Notes because the anti-abortion protesters will literally photograph their license plates, try and find the names of the owners, and post them online.
There are also fake abortion clinics — directly next to the actual clinic, there will be another clinic, or RV, or office that looks almost like an abortion clinic, but is run by people whose goal is to convince the woman to keep the baby. They’ll show the woman her ultrasound and talk about the baby, and their ideas about life beginning at conception. It’s incredibly manipulative and preys on women who are scared, confused, or maybe even just accidentally went into Door B instead of Door A.
What was it like getting access to visuals to show people the process? Especially the images you took with Imani.
This young woman came from Texas to California to get an abortion. A lot of states during the early days of COVID used the pandemic as an excuse to introduce further abortion restrictions. Texas passed legislation that called abortions an elective procedure, which wasn’t allowed during early in the pandemic, and so they effectively outlawed it for a while. But this isn't knee surgery or a nose job — it's a very time-sensitive process. I worked closely with Planned Parenthood Los Angeles to identify someone who was traveling from out of state to get an abortion. PPLA has always served a client base from a huge geographic area, and that’s only growing. They notified me when they thought that someone might be open to being photographed. A few people fell through. It's a really hard moment when a woman decides to have an abortion, and then a whole other layer of stress to have a journalist who wants to follow you through the process. It’s a huge ask. Eventually they found someone who seemed open to this, and PPLA made sure she understood the process and that it was voluntary.
For this woman, traveling for an abortion was difficult for her financially — she was young, 22. The person who was sort of her boyfriend was paying for the abortion itself, but it was a complicated relationship. Her family were immigrants from a conservative country and did not approve of abortions, and the immigrant community she lived in was very small and tight-knit, and she was worried about them finding out. She had friends in Los Angeles, so she scheduled the abortion at PPLA. She really had to trust me not to out her in some way, and to let me accompany her during this whole process.
You photographed a fetus during your work on abortions — it was so different for me from the unfortunate images you see anti-abortion protesters use. What did that photo mean to you?
The anti-abortion movement uses incredibly manipulative imagery — often showing something that looks like a newborn baby inside a woman’s stomach along with text about murder.
I wanted to show with these pictures how wildly different these propaganda pictures are from physical reality. Most people don’t know what a fetus looks like, or what the medical reality of the procedure is like. I really wanted to show this contrast. The doctor who had traveled from the northeast was on board — she also was so frustrated with the propagandistic imagery — so she worked with me to make this picture. She isolated the fetus from other uterine tissue and put it on a lightbox so I could photograph it.
There is so much information out there that is purposely trying to confuse and emotionally manipulate women. And if they are putting this imagery into a vacuum where there’s no counter imagery, even women who want to have an abortion might not really know what it looks like. It’s really different when you think there's a full-grown baby in your uterus versus the reality of a clump of cells that is less than an inch long.
What were some of your main takeaways from this project?
There’s so much misinformation, and so much that is hidden and secretive. Healthcare is and should be private, but there is value in women like Imani who are willing to allow their process to be photographed so that others can understand what this looks like.
And so much of this is so emotionally manipulative. Take, for example, the “heartbeat” law in Alabama and elsewhere, that make abortions illegal after a fetal heartbeat can be detected. Last year, fed up with some of my limitations as a photographer, I actually started working as an EMT. In my EMT classes, we learned about the electrical nodes in the heart. The heart is the only muscle with its own electrical impulse. People have different interpretations of what this means, but learning about the heart's automaticity added another layer for me.
My hope with this body of work is to show the day-to-day reality of abortion care, and just how hard it is for women to access it. And we all know it’s only going to get harder.