“My Choice Reigns Supreme:” A Pro Roe Project
© Photography by Anja Schütz
Looking back at the overturning of Roe v Wade and the regulation of bodily autonomy, choice, and freedom: an interview with Anja Schütz.
“I happen to be the one who is given the privilege of sharing their stories. This really isn’t my project, so much as I am the channel for all these voices.”
Pro Roe is a portraiture series that captures individuals across the United States who share their perspectives on the overturning of Roe v Wade through Instagram captions. From anger toward the supreme court and how abortion healthcare can save lives, Anja uses her platform to amplify the voices of others.
Have politics and photography always intersected? When did you first realize you could use your platform to amplify the voices of others?
Up until 2016, I had the privilege of not really considering myself a very political person; I grew up in Western Massachusetts, where I live now, in a very progressive and liberal area, and then I moved to New York City when I was 19.
Somehow, surrounded by like-minded individuals in Massachusetts and New York, I never really had to think about what was happening in the rest of the country. I was very privileged; I was very comfortable.
When in 2016, Trump made his statement about ‘grabbing women by the pu**y,’ I had this visceral and knee-jerk reaction.
I did this self-portrait of myself in the nude; I was holding a mock ballot to cover me, where across my chest, I had the hashtag #GrabHimByTheBallot - which is not a hashtag I came up with; it had already been circulating.
I thought I would be doing this portrait with maybe six to ten of my friends, and that would be it, but instead, what happened is that I began getting emails and messages from people saying, ‘this really resonates with me, and I’d like to pose for your project.’ Then it went viral.
© Photography by Anja Schütz
It wasn’t a ‘thing’ that I set out to do - like ‘I’m gonna do this political piece,’ it just came out of a need to react. And the way I reacted just came in a way that made other people react; it made other people want to take part.
I ended up photographing over two hundred people for this project - mostly women and -binary people. But no cis men. People who had experienced their bodily autonomy being attacked.
That was the beginning of my political journey in terms of art. And then, when Roe was overturned, I again felt this need to express my feelings.
I’m not necessarily a person who, if you met me on the street and you confronted me in some way, I am not somebody who would come out swinging and be loud. It really is my art where I feel the most comfortable making some sort of statement.
I had this idea in mind, where, initially, I wanted the shirt to say ‘I am America.’
Because, again, being half-German, I see the rest of the world looking at America and mostly seeing MAGA types and conservatives, and so on and so forth.
And I knew the statement ‘I am America’ is problematic because there are so many people that live in this country that feel excluded from that statement. I think it’s a very white and privileged thing to say. And someone wrote to me about this project and told me that while she liked the concept, the statement was indeed problematic. We talked about it for a while and agreed to change the slogans, where she - who so far throughout this project has not wanted credit for it - came up with the slogans ‘my choice reigns supreme’ and ‘abort the court.’
I like both of these because one is more about the dignity of bodily autonomy and being able to make your own choices, and the other one is about rage and lashing out at the supreme court for what they’ve done.
And then, the third slogan came into the conversation, actually thanks to my husband, which is ‘abortion saves lives.’ It’s a slogan he has been wanting to make into a bumper sticker for years now, predating the overturning of Roe.
These are now the three slogans I photograph people wearing, and I interview them. We spend some time sharing space and discussing what is going on for them and what their feelings and thoughts are. Some people get very personal with me, and sometimes there is crying or yelling.
It is this really intense, almost therapy moment for both of us. For me, it is like a listening tour; I get to go into a person’s home and listen to these profound things that have happened to them in their lives, and the amount of trust that takes - I feel so honored.
Once we’ve established this emotional space together, then I take their portraits. After their portraits are taken, they write their own captions.
Sometimes, it includes things we talked about; sometimes, it’s on a completely different tangent - it’s whatever people feel comfortable sharing about their own experiences.
Everything that has been posted is in everyone’s own words.
I still wouldn’t consider myself a political artist: as things arise, I am here to document.
© Photography by Anja Schütz
What do you think the overturning of Roe vs. Wade indicates about the current political climate in the US?
Most ‘normal’ people in this country understand that this political system is not working for us anymore. The ‘experiment’ that is the United States is in big danger.
It is because of these people at the top who are not connected to normal people like us; they don’t understand what our lives are like, what we live like, or the lack of education we’re receiving. The government keeps cutting education funds, so especially in areas like the deep south, people don’t have access to education. They’re not taught to become critical thinkers.
I think there are so many people in this country who are angry and disenfranchised; lost. Those who don’t see a way forward.
What are some of the things you’ve learned throughout this project, and how do you create this space for these people you’ve just met to be emotionally vulnerable with you?
I think, thanks to the project I did in 2016, people (more or less) understand that my aim is to empower and uplift the voices of ‘normal’ people around me. People can see this as an opportunity to say their part.
It is extremely important for me to be documenting what is happening at this point in history.
In a country that’s changing so quickly, in such a dark direction, here’s a chance for ‘normal’ people, people like myself and the people in my community, to state their position. To say that they’re not okay with what is happening in this country.
It is my hope for future generations to see this project and see where their parents stood.
It is my hope that in 100 years, in whichever direction the country has ended up going in, somebody sees this project and sees this collection of people who were against the turning of the tide in this country. That is extremely important to me.
What I really appreciate about this project is that so far, not one single caption has been the same. Everybody has this intensely personal or political perspective on what this all means.
Every single story that has been shared, each being so different, gives people a chance to see themselves or to see somebody they know and understand each other better.
For having started this project, and not really knowing where it’s going to go, the fact that it has turned into this and become fully a caption-driven project, I think, is astounding and amazing. I feel so incredibly honored that I can be a part of it.
I’ve realized, I think, thanks to the last project and now this project, that my heart’s work lies in a space that allows other people to have a voice. I never set out to do that, but I think because of the last project, I was given ‘permission’ from the people that participated, and I don’t want to waste that.
The more stories that can be gathered, the more people can see themselves in those stories. And maybe, there can be this galvanizing moment, and it can help people to speak up for themselves or to have difficult conversations with their families - whatever it takes.
Regarding how bleak the current situation is, do you have hope for the future? That things could change for the better?
There was something somebody once told me that I think about quite often. When Trump was elected, and I, like everyone else, was bemoaning this fact on Facebook, somebody said to me:
“Progress is like an arrow; you can’t shoot it forward without drawing the arrow back first.”
It’s not a perfect metaphor, but it is something I think about quite a bit. Maybe, all the anger and all the retaliation against normal human residents of this country is happening because there is a big change coming on the horizon.
In a few more years, white people will no longer be the majority of this country (which is good). I think what’s happening right now is a reaction by old white men at the top, panicking because their way of life is changing. Their supremacy is eroding.
There is a lot of fight-back by these (older) conservative people who are trying to keep things, as horrible as they were, the same. But I don’t think it’s sustainable.
People are much more resilient than that. Luckily, America is a country that takes things to the streets, and while things will first get darker and get worse, I don’t think that the desire for people to express their outrage and to insist on their own dignity will change. There will always be people fighting back.
And how quick the change comes, I don’t know. It would be wonderful to see it in my lifetime - I am 42 right now - but I can’t predict the future; I have no idea.
Maybe it won’t be that bleak; maybe change will come quickly. It’s just hard to see right now; it’s hard to imagine things turning around and getting better. At the rate that things have eroded in the last few years, it’s hard to be optimistic. But I’m willing to be.