Photographs of Planned Parenthood sites engage viewers aesthetically, politically

Photographing Planned Parenthood locations in Ohio can get you into (a little bit of) trouble.

Jared Thorne’s “26 Planned Parenthoods” is a series of images of each of the organization’s Ohio locations taken between 2015 and 2018 (currently, there are 23 active sites in Ohio; three have closed since Thorne photographed them). One day, he came home from work — Thorne is also a photography professor at Ohio State University — to find a note on his front door… from the FBI.

“The cops came to see what was up. I wouldn’t say me and the cops have a love-love relationship. I wasn’t rude, but I know about access and public property, and I knew I wasn’t doing anything. So he stays and watches me, but it’s a thing you forget about after because, life, you know? And I come home one day to find a note on my door from the FBI,” Thorne said in an interview at Downtown gallery Contemporary Art Matters, where selections from the series will be on exhibition throughout March and April.

“So I had to go in and talk to them, which is tough and annoying but good, too, because what if I was a threat and they don’t follow up? At the heart of it [they’re] trying to protect something I care about,” he said.

Thorne began the series not long after relocating to Columbus for his work at OSU (he grew up in Boston and Cincinnati before living as an adult in New York City and Capetown, South Africa).

“I make work that speaks to where I am,” Thorne said. “The images were a way to jump right into art and politics in my re-adopted home state. I wanted to make work about identity and about subjectivity that were landscapes, not the body in landscape or body as landscape. I think the work speaks to a certain set of values I do have [regarding] women’s health and health care specifically for women of color. Of course I’m interested. It seems like a crime not to be, especially when you realize how blessed and privileged some people are, myself included. It almost seems like, ‘How can I not make work that relates to that?’”

After working through issues of form and composition, Thorne was able to hit on what he felt was the best way to tell the story he hoped to tell. By presenting images of each location in context, in a neighborhood, the works reveal that each of these locations is part of a community — a community that includes the people who are seeking health care services offered there.

“When I realized the work is not about the edifice itself but really about the communities, I started stepping back. Formally it works better and it highlights more of the surroundings,” Thorne said. “When you go to these places, you see cities that have love and life but also are crumbling apart. So there’s this duality. Who are the communities that need these services? Everyone should have access, but it’s disproportionately those at the bottom economically who need them.”

And those services are at risk, Thorne said. It’s no coincidence that these images were taken in the time immediately before and after the 2016 national election.

“I understand that some people see these places as politically charged in a negative way,” Thorne said. “In some ways, I’d just like to leave the conversation there. I mean, I had to make the photographs, but… it’s layered.”

But Thorne couldn’t just leave the conversation there.

“But if the idea is to cut funding for things… I mean, as a guy, I kinda understand, understand enough, but I don’t understand. I’m generally interested in all people, but the fact that [Planned Parenthood] disproportionately serves black and Latina women in Ohio, and there’s this desire to cut funding for it. It’s curious, transparent even. I think about black women, think about my mother or my sister, and restricting access to birth control, to these other things that women need. How dare we?”

“I’m just asking questions, is the main thing,” he said, rant mode off.

In support of these questions, making beautiful images was a key concern for Thorne.

“I wanted to make images that you want to pause and stay on, versus just snapshots,” he said. “I want to make these landscapes that are carefully considered, that have a certain potency aesthetically that allows them to serve the subject matter.”