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After discovering an old manual in her parents’ house, the Australian-British photographer began to consider the visual and literal language used in the particular farming industry
“So a lot of my art-making practice, and myself as a person, depends on the things I learned we were young in that environment, ” says Odette England. “The idea of never throwing anything away, being industrious, being practical, and being part of a community where, if something went wrong for someone, a person all pitched in to assist. There are principles and morals and ideals I have through growing up in that community that will I’m very grateful intended for. At the same time, because I really realize that community, I feel comfortable criticising it. ”
England grew up on a 200-acre dairy farm in southern Australia, which usually her family lost to near-bankruptcy in 1989. She’s now based in New York, however the farm is a subject the lady returns to repeatedly, frequently collaborating with her parents. Often this work is open-ended, she says, based on “some attraction to an object or place”.
Her pictures of her daughter really are a case in point. Shot over five years on her parents’ former land, these images re-enact moments from England’s past. The project began organically, without structure, until the girl went back to Australia within January 2020 and present a dusty old guide under her parents’ stairways.
The manual hailed from her father, and was a farmer’s guide to a confirmation assessment – a phrase used by farmers to describe and assess the physicality of dairy products cows. Flicking through the web pages she found “nasty dot-grained, black-and-white photographs of cows” focusing on their udders, vaginas, legs and rumps. Text describing the animals used terms that are “sexist, derogatory, and similar to the language utilized in pornography. I thought, ‘That’s this! ’” says England. “That’s the thing that anchors all of this work I’ve been making. ”
We speak while she is finalising the joker of the resulting book, Dairy products Character, which is due to end up being published this autumn and exhibited at the Silver Eyes Center for Photography in Pittsburgh in May. Dairy Character combines text and illustrations from the confirmation assessment manual with England’s photographs associated with her daughter, plus created stories about her earlier childhood days, family snapshots, and pictures of female calves taken by her father for established documents. The images are usually reproduced in delicate shades; England also interlaces blush-coloured papers in the book. But the content is uncomfortable, centring on extreme close-ups which suggest a reductive way of seeing both cows and ladies. It is a subversive look at the literal and visual language of farming.
“When you focus on these types of aspects, day in, day out, it has to affect how you look at females more usually. It’s how farmers discuss women and their daughters: ‘Wow, you’re looking a bit broad in the rump today. ’ That’s the way they speak. ”
“The ways in which cows are shown in this manual is very intrusive, ” says England. “They focus on the parts of the body that will relate to production and duplication, and the parts that are not as interesting are removed. You very rarely notice photographs of the head or face in any way. When I’ve been photographing my little girl, I’ve been thinking about the way the rest of the body is cut off, and I’ve thought a lot as to what it means to hide the face.
“Looking at this manual from my dad’s point of view, he would concentrate on these parts of the body in a practical, logistical manner, ” England explains. “But when you concentrate on these aspects, day in, day out, it has to influence how you look at females more generally. It’s how maqui berry farmers talk about women and their children: ‘Wow, you’re looking a little wide in the rump nowadays. ’ That’s the way they speak. ”
It’s a perspective that communicates a particular objectification – one that permitted cows to become objects and thus property, and maybe women too. In England’s farming community, cows were literally possessed – her father referred to the herd as ‘my girls’ – and had been also classed as units of production, their milk yield logged on spreadsheets. Women supported men via the unpaid labour of household chores and child-rearing, and lived on land that went by from father to child – a position that delivered them economic dependents.
While it might sound extreme, the idea that there’s something similar in the position of women and cattle is certainly central to Carol T Adams’ seminal book through 1990, The Sexual National politics of Meat . This book links the literal consumption of animals using the sexual consumption of women, and argues that objectification can be central to the process just for both. “Objectification permits a good oppressor to view another being as an object, ” the author explains. “Once objectified, the being can be fragmented. Once fragmented, consumption happens. ” The front cover shows a lady split as on a butcher’s chart, the various sections labelled ‘rump’, ‘breast’ and more.
The Sexual Politics of Meats has recently been republished, yet it’s a book England has returned to often over the years, and, as she points out, its argument means Dairy Character is relevant to all patriarchal western societies, despite being rooted in her own background and even her own family’s organize of books and photographs. “I’m thinking about rural females, but the ‘rural’ could be subbed away, ” she says. “That’s just the frame I felt knowledgeable talking about, but actually it’s how women are usually looked at, talked about, and thought about. ”