Review: Observing Women at Work by Franki Raffles

Observing Women at Work brings together three bodies of work by the feminist social documentary photographer Franki Raffles (1955-1994): To Let You Understand (1988), Women at Work, Russia (1989) and Zero Tolerance.  Raffles was born in Salford and studied at St. Andrews University.  She began documenting the lives of women during family holidays in the 1980s and secured a scholarship in 1992-3 from Wingate Trust enabling her to travel to Israel.

Raffles’ work shows a photographer in her prime, a woman who has something to show and something say.  Her images from Russia could have bleak and overbearing, focussing on the poverty of the women being photographed; instead Raffles displays the inner strength and pride of these women.  Note the image above where the women smile, the blurred shovel in the foreground emphasising the speed they undertake work.  The woman on the left has only one leg.

These images are in sharp contrast to those taken in Scotland.  To Let You Understand shows Scottish women as home helps, cleaners, factory workers, and hospital workers.  These women display dignified silence.  Many seem lost at work, as if in a daze.  Bringing these images alongside those taken in Russia certainly makes them all the more powerful.

Raffles’ Zero Tolerance images are completely different from anything else on show here.  In one way they do not fit and perhaps a separate, larger exhibition of this work is a needed.  Raffles has created photographs showing young girls and women in ordinary domestic settings with harrowing text such as “By the time they reach eighteen, one of them will have been subjected to sexual abuse.”  The use of text makes the posters gut wrenching, especially if you examine the staging of the photographs.  Raffles has used symbolism subtlety in each image which is genuinely unsettling.  For example, one background shows a teddy bear balancing precariously over an edge, perhaps a childhood literally hanging by a thread.  It is subtleties such as these which make these posters so compelling.

Observing Women at Work is a testament to the photography of Franki Raffles.  She has created images that show women in strength and dignity, despair and vulnerability.  Her work in establishing Zero Tolerance and raising the issue of male violence against women deserve to be highlighted in a larger independent exhibition.

Observing Women at Work runs until 27 April 2017 at the Reid Building, The Glasgow School of Art, 164 Renfrew Street, Glasgow, G3 6RF.  Cost is Free.

For more information about Zero Tolerance www.zerotolerance.org.uk 

Thank you to Lesley Booth for supplying exhibition image.