Franki Raffles: Observing Women at Work
Long overdue exhibition of pioneering documentary photographer
Observing Women at Work is one of the first major exhibitions of work by the feminist social documentary photographer Franki Raffles who died in 1994 aged just 39. Raffles' complete photographic archive is held at St Andrews University, and this exhibition takes three bodies of work from it, aptly demonstrating the scope and techniques that define her broader practice and her fierce, feminist agenda.
Women at Work, Russia (1989) captures the lives of Soviet women in stark black and white photographs – there are no 'men's jobs', Raffles photographs women plasterers, road builders and railway workers. The series debunks the myths that continue to shape women's role in our society, even today. This series sits aside To Let You Understand, a year-long project commissioned by Edinburgh District Council's Women's Committee in 1988. Here work is more precarious and gendered – women are predominantly home-helpers, cleaners or factory workers, in part time roles with poor pay. In both series' Raffles gives visibility to an otherwise invisible workforce. She also gives them a voice, pairing quotes with images.
The stand out work is Raffles' Prevalence campaign for Zero Tolerance, a women's charity she set up with Evelyn Gillan. Raffles deliberately stages sentimental scenes of domestic life such as girls playing together, reading with their grandmothers or women sitting reading magazines beside the fire. Accompanying the photographs are hard facts on domestic violence. Images of the campaign lining Princes Street are held within glass cases in the centre of the gallery space.
Prevalence wasn't made for museums – these were confrontational pieces designed to interrupt the public, jolting them out of their day-to-day life, rather than the privileged few who enter the gallery space. In this context the works lose some of their potency. However, the motivation behind this exhibition has to be to recognise Raffles' practice – to observe the massive contribution of her own work to the history of Scottish documentary practice. Like the women Raffles' photographed and the stories she told, she too has been overlooked for too long.
Reid Gallery, until Thu 27 Apr.