Q&A: Vanessa Filley


Vanessa Filley was born in New York City in 1975.  She began her career as a human rights investigator for a law firm, but six years in discovered a compelling emotional need to make more tangible work in the world.  After founding a clothing company of one of a kind wear from recycled fabrics she quickly evolved into a mixed-media fine art practice.  Her work ranges from large scale sculptural installations to tiny embroidery pieces.  After years of taking pictures she discovered that she could synthesize her art making in photographs, allowing her to design scenes, make costumes and conjure a certain sense of emotion and place.  She has been showing work throughout the US and internationally since 2015. In 2016 she was one of Photolucida’s Top 200. She lives and works in Evanston, Il.


Vanessa Filley's words and images exist as a courageous and articulate example of one woman's experience with abortion. Rather than interview her, I have chosen to share her words and images. A woman's right to make life decisions for herself and her family are essential.  I believe that societies polarization around policing women causes immeasurable harm. Women have the right to make choices about their bodies and their future. Filley's experience is an example of thoughtful informed personal choice. I applaud her courage in sharing and her determination to fight for other women to have the right to choice for their bodies and future.

By Hamidah Glasgow   |   March 23, 2017

Let's Talk About Abortion
by Vanessa Filley

He said make America Great Again.  Is taking away a woman's right to choose how she uses her body great?  Is compromising the quality of a mother and child's life for values that are not those of the mother, great for her, her child, her community, her country?  Is forcing women into back-alley abortion clinics or worse putting women in the position where they may resort to performing their own abortions great?  We as a country, as women, have worked hard fighting for equality, equality in the workplace, equality in our communities, equality in our committed relationships and yet, in many instances, we have yet to  achieve full parity with our male counter-parts.  By having control over our own bodies, we have a greater chance of equality.

As individuals we have chosen many different paths.  We have worked hard to become doctors, artists, lawyers, writers, scientists, professors.  We have worked hard in factories, in government, in schools, in homes.  We have done our best to care for our bodies, to protect our bodies.  We have stood up for the rights of ourselves and others.  We have been responsible and thoughtful in our choices.  We, as twenty-first century American women, and women living in America, from diverse race and class backgrounds believe that our bodies are our own.  We are not here to be a host to grow a future generation if we do not so choose, we are not here to be studied, without our consent.  We are here to embrace our freedom of expression, our freedom of choice and we are here to make America a more perfect union.

Making these images became essential for me shortly after the inauguration.  They are about preserving a woman's right to choose.  The intention was to depict a woman driven to give herself an abortion at home, the results are unknown, is she hemorrhaging, in excruciating pain, resting after the exertion of performing surgery on herself, deceased?  In this, she is alone, pushed into the darkness and at that moment of rest she is discovered by her daughter, or maybe visited by the ghost of another daughter.  She is in a fetal position, perhaps a rebirth of herself. The hanger images are under the working titles of Not A Surgical Instrument, in reference to the history of women who have performed their own abortions using wire hangers.  And the close up on the placenta and gynecological tools is entitled Never Again, never again shall we be forced back in time to a moment when we might be put in a position where we would consider performing our own abortions. The placenta and the majority of the blood used in these images are real.  They are mine.

Four years ago I had an abortion.  At the time my daughters were two and four.  As a child I longed to be the single mother of a hundred children, a sort of old woman in the shoe fantasy.  But by early adulthood I questioned my desire to have children at all, questioned what sort of mother I might be and whether I should commit my life to social justice causes rather than the distraction of children.  Yes, for many there is a balance and capacity to do both and more, but there is also a an expansiveness that comes with managing your own time, strictly, and not having the lives of little people, you are in charge of molding, as one of your paramount responsibilities.  But, then came the day in my early thirties when my beloved asked if we should consider changing our insurance policy to include a maternity rider.  I thought probably not yet.  Many friends of mine had begun to have children and the biological imperative, let alone an interest in children at all, were out of my grasp.  But we decided to change our insurance policy, just in case, and by the time the three months needed to prove that any pregnancy was not a pre-existing condition to signing up for the policy was up, I was counting down the days.  I had been taking cod liver oil and pre-natal vitamins daily, studied the ingredients of everything I put in and on and around my body to insure ultimate health for myself and the being I might grow inside of me.  I was ready, eager even.  And it happened.  For the first couple of weeks, before I officially knew, but I Knew, I was filled with a nearly frantic amount of energy and then it hit me like a train wreck, the hormones exploded in every part of my body and I became for all intents and purposes, an incapacitated host.  I threw up constantly. I was spinning and off-balance and nauseous every second of the day.  I could hardly lift my head up.  I wasn't able to work.  I wasn't able to think.  I could barely walk.  I would practically roll myself outside each day and curl up under a table clutching my throw-up bowl for hours.  It was awful.  I suffered every side effect known to pregnancy (well that's an exaggeration, but it felt like it at the time), my blood sugar was wacky, I had acid reflux, did I mention I was vomiting constantly.  My midwife proscribed Zofran, I was weary, but four months in decided to try it.  It didn't stop the vomiting, but eased the severity of it.  In the end I threw up for all but two weeks of the entire pregnancy.  My second pregnancy was similar, not quite as severe, but still felt for most of it, like I was barely surviving.  People, dear friends and those I hardly knew, have asked how I could have had a second child given my first pregnancy.  At the time, I was focused on building a family, making conscious choices about sibling spacing and the benefits of having a sibling versus an only child.  I was willing and able to sacrifice my functionality for the sake of future family.  I was entangled in the web of the biological imperative.  And I gave myself to it fully, I co-slept with my children and nursed them both for the first two years of their lives.  I was and still am enamored of my children.  I am thankful for the chance to be a parent, but also feel that parenthood is not my only reason for existence, I have a larger creative imperative that I am compelled to actualize.

When one day I woke up emotional, nauseous and foggy headed I thought I was sick.  I thought I was exhausted, overextended.  Because both of my prior pregnancies had been acts of intention, acts in which I was deeply in-tune with my body, I had known that I was pregnant and could prepare myself for the onslaught of what was to come.  This third time was different.  I was psychologically unprepared and of course we are unprepared for much of what happens in our lives, we can not control for all the wonder and all of the trauma, but in our most intimate spaces, that is where, in a chaotic world, we should be able to have a bit more control.  And here I was vomiting and spinning and peeing on a stick.  When that little plus sign revealed itself there was not a chance in the world that I could be the mother I am to my children to a third being.  Not only could I not co-sleep and nurse and commit the time it takes to love and nurture a small creature, I could not endure the vomiting and complete dysfunction.  How could I care for the children I already had that needed me then and there while I was splayed on a bed unable to perform basic daily acts of living?  I called Planned Parenthood, but they couldn't see me for three weeks.  I called my OBGYN who had once performed an abortion in our local university hospital and had been shunned for the act.  I called my midwife who suggested a clinic on the west side of Chicago.  They saw me the next day.  We talked, they counseled me on my options, they did an ultra-sound and we set a date.  

Surgery only happens at the clinic on Tuesdays and Thursdays.  It was snowing and cold the Thursday my husband and I showed up.  There were protestors outside the parking lot yelling at us as we drove in.  After check-in my husband went out to engage in rational conversation with the protestors, but they had departed.  I was fuming thinking about religious and personal freedom.  Wondering if the picketers believed in universal healthcare and improving the quality of our public education system.  But they were gone.  I was led into a locker room with a group of other women and given a gown, told to change into it and take a seat in the waiting room.  We were all silent and made similar by our condition and our dress.  There was some awful daytime television show on with lovers quarreling and being instigated by the host.  It felt surreal. It felt as if, by virtue of our choice, we had lost some of our humanity, our dignity.  This was not in fact the case, but when we exchanged our clothes for these gowns, we became a part of a universal story and not an individual story.  We were women who did not want to have children, at least at that time.  This was a sisterhood of a sort, but instead of feeling a sense of empowered camaraderie, the space felt shrouded by shame and anxiety.  I wanted to know the story of every single woman in there, to know what had happened in her life before today, what she dreamed would happen in the days and years to come, but nobody was feeling up to conversation and so we sat watching lovers attack each other, eager to get back to our lives as we knew them.  To get back to being a teenager, a college student, a young woman ready to embrace the opportunity of the life before her.

While we sat there I looked around at the faces of these young women, some running to the bathroom to vomit, many clearly uncomfortable, and thought about how abortion gave all of us a second chance.  A chance to be more intentional with our lives.  To give life to an unwanted child feels like a trauma unto itself, both for the mother and the child for whatever reason. And there are many reasons not to have children.  For me, given the trends of a warming climate, (it is 72 degrees today in Chicago, it is February 2017.  My children wore shorts and t-shirts to school today.) the legacy we are leaving behind for future generations will likely be one of great suffering.  We are seeing climate refugees all over the globe and this is merely a beginning of mass migrations.  We will continue to see conflicts over increasingly limited resources.  Wealthy nations, ahem, are closing their borders and devising schemes to keep out those who seek the possibility of a new life with access to clean water, food, healthcare.  I fear that this is the trend for humanity, that wealthy nations that consume the majority of the world's resources and contribute most to the warming of the planet will become these protectionist spaces, exploiters safe havens.  I do not want that for my children or my grand-children or any of the people of the world.  By having children in a first world country I am contributing to global warming, despite my efforts to counter the impact.  And so for me, one less child was a little less impact.  Some would question why I had children at all then, the reasons, perhaps, are purely selfish.

It feels entirely unnecessary for me to have to rationalize my abortion or my choices as a mother, and yet today, as we live and breath, so many voices are ignored and silenced by the hegemony of the current highest office holder and his cohort, and so it feels essential that each of us voice our stories, that each of us hear the stories of others, that we listen and understand and feel empathy, that we put ourselves in other people's shoes, see from many perspectives.  I saw those women in the waiting room with me.  I understood that each of them had life choices to make that did not involve being pregnant or raising a child at that time and I hold their choice dear.  I have worked with people who are "pro-life" around anti-death penalty legislation and I know that we can find points of agreement and see each others' humanity, but it remains inconceivable to me how people who are "pro-life" can impose their personal belief upon others who do not share it.  They will not be living with the unwanted child, paying for it's education, doctor's bills, food, clothing, shelter and even if that child becomes wanted by its birth mother, is it fair for us as a society to have changed the course of a woman's life when she may have dreamed of a different path?

As I write, I realize that I'm not even beginning to scrape the surface of this issue and that I have only talked about choice and dreams and haven't mentioned adoption, rape, birth control options and conditions, outside of hyperemesis , that might threaten the health of a mother during pregnancy, I haven't talked about so much and I want to.  I want to stand proud as a believer in choice.  Yesterday a dear friend and fellow photographer shared the Shout Your Abortion project with me, in which images of women wearing T-shirts that say Everyone Knows I Had An Abortion are being projected out of doors on huge spaces, buildings, walls, screens.  This is inspiring and I am learning more!  We are all standing up for so many issues we believe in now, if and when the next Supreme Court Justice is confirmed keep Roe v. Wade in your sites.  If Roe v. Wade is overturned, fight like hell for legal abortion in your state.






All images ©  Vanessa Filley