Art interview: photographer Jannica Honey on her new exhibition, When The Blackbird Sings

Detail of an image from When the Blackbird Sings
Detail of an image from When the Blackbird Sings
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Private pain at failed IVF treatments and anger and bewilderment at the rise of Trump informed Jannica Honey’s latest exhibition – portraits of women taken in the twilight of a new or full moon, writes Andrew Eaton-Lewis

If you’ve picked up a magazine in Scotland in the past ten years, you’ll likely have seen the work of Edinburgh-based, Swedish photographer Jannica Honey. Her subjects range from leading musicians (Young Fathers, Kathryn Joseph, Frightened Rabbit) to leading politicians (Nicola Sturgeon, Kezia Dugdale and Ruth Davidson), and she has been commissioned by Vogue, Dazed and Confused and most of the Scottish media – including 20 cover shots for The List.

Honey has also created her own, always compelling exhibitions, whose subjects have ranged from the residents of a Mohawk reservation in Montreal to a group of lap-dancers in Edinburgh. Her new show, When The Blackbird Sings, is perhaps her most intensely personal project yet – and powerfully timely, in the wake of the recent #MeToo movement.

When The Blackbird Sings grew out of a painful time in Honey’s life. In summer 2016, after several attempts to have a baby, she and her partner went through two courses of IVF treatment. It didn’t work. She is happy to talk about it, she says, “because a lot of women go through this and we don’t talk about it but it’s so normal.” On top of this, her beloved grandmother, the matriarch of the family, had just died.

What she was seeing in the outside world, she says, intensified her feelings of loss. “In 2016 I felt like society was overdosing on testosterone,” she tells me over lunch in Edinburgh. “Trump, Putin, these characters who seem like caricatures of mad, violent men. Meanwhile I was overdosing on the other hormone trying to create life.” The rise of Donald Trump, she says, made her feel “totally disempowered and scared”.

What turned things around was a spontaneous, therapeutic photo shoot. “When I had my first bleed after my second IVF in October I decided to go down to the Water of Leith with a friend, and she was like, ‘you could do a naked shoot with me.’ It was a super new moon, in twilight. For the first time I felt a lift, a pause, a break in these 24 hours of work work work, pain, night, sleep sleep sleep… It was like twilight opened up a breathing space for me.”

A twilight shoot is particularly challenging for photographers, says Honey. “You have 15 minutes, tops, or either there’s too much shadow or it’s too dark.” It seemed like a potent metaphor. “It’s not just the light disappearing, it’s the time ticking away like in life. It reminded me of every single time I’ve been ovulating and trying to make a baby, because that’s just a brief moment in the month as well. You only have two days.”

Inspired, Honey set herself a task – for 12 months, she would work according to the cycles of nature, photographing women, outdoors, only at twilight, and only during the new moon and the full moon. “I went through so much stuff in 2016 that I knew I’d really suffer if I didn’t use all that pain and channel it in a strengthening way. There were a few different things that led to this work but the main intention was to strengthen the women around me, and the female energy – a totally different kind of structure to what we live in at the moment where it seems like there is no place for emotions and vulnerabilities.”

And so Honey embarked on a series of naked portraits, full of dignity and humanity, of women of all ages and body sizes, from friends and family to strangers who approached her on Facebook. Two of the women, poignantly, are cradling young children. Another is Honey’s mother – a deeply emotional experience that still leaves her close to tears when she describes it. “She’s really shy,” says Honey. “She didn’t think she’d be doing something like this at the age of 65, but she said she was really comfortable. She became the archetypal mother persona of the whole work.”

A key part of the project, Honey says, was the connection she made with the women she photographed. “I’ve been really honest about my journey and my weakness and pains and I hope my sharing supported them in their weaknesses.” She says, sadly, “the amount of self hatred I felt I’d been a vessel for, women looking at their bodies and hating their stomach or their bum, or looking silly. All the women I photographed are accomplished successful women and they still had that, ‘That’s nice but look at how fat I look. She’s beautiful but look at me.’ But I know they all felt seen by me and when we feel seen as humans and people, not objects, we feel better about ourselves.”

Honey’s one-year mission to strengthen women has acquired an extra layer of resonance for having begun just before Donald Trump was elected US president (only weeks after boasting on camera about grabbing women “by the pussy”) and concluded just as the exposure of Harvey Weinstein’s long history of sexual assault was triggering a global outpouring of stories about women’s worst experiences at the hands of men. Even at the beginning, Honey says now, “I felt like it was the end of the era. The amazing thing is that it really was because I think if it wasn’t for him (Trump) these ideas of the old style of being a man wouldn’t have been ripped apart as they are now.”

The experience has changed Honey too. “I’d always been quite outspoken but now, after a whole year of doing this, I’m more likely to challenge unhealthy and oppressive behaviour. A friend was telling me that she’d seen better days, that she was getting old, and I was like, what do you mean? It’s a thing that has been drilled into us. I don’t think it’s a biological response any more, that beauty has got to do with youthfulness because it’s about reproduction and staying alive. It’s like an old chip that has been installed that needs to come out. The worst thing is this is within me too – I know I’m getting older, but what beauty are we talking about and is it really that important anyway?” And she laughs, a big hearty cackle. “F*** beauty.”

When The Blackbird Sings, Arusha Gallery, Edinburgh, 2-25 March. www.jannicahoney.com