Diana Mara Henry's Photography and Progressive Activism
It was the first day of October 2021. The warmth from the summer was still clinging on, though the fall breeze sometimes made us shiver. I tried to take as many photos as I could to truly capture the energy of the moment—us gathering, masked, marching through the streets of downtown Pittsburgh. Click. A photo: a hand with bright red nail polish pokes out of a black sleeve, holding up a bright green sign that reads “Jews for Abortion Justice.”
In pursuing photography, I’ve been inspired by feminist Jewish photographers like Diana Mara Henry. Diana Mara Henry was born in 1948 in Cincinnati, Ohio. After graduating from Harvard’s Radcliffe College in 1969, she began to photograph feminist events and leaders throughout the 1970s, such as Elizabeth Holtzman’s congressional campaign in 1972. She was also one of the official photographers for the First National Women’s Conference which happened in the late 1970s. Since then, Henry has exhibited works at venues such as the Women’s Hall of Fame and the Overseas Press Club and her photos are in the collections of places such as the Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America. One of her more recent exhibitions was in 2019 at the Red Wall Meeting Place and Gallery in Newport, Vermont. The exhibit was titled “As Yet Unseen.”
From her documentation of activists to her more conceptual pieces, many of Henry’s photos highlight the feminist movement during the time that she’s taking them. My favorite photo of hers: a butcher, out of focus and in a bright white apron, gazes past a cow carcass to a poster of a woman shown sectioned as if she was a cut of meat. This image highlights the objectification of women, which was prevalent when Henry took this photo in 1969 and still today. Through this image and others, she used photography as a way to highlight and document social change.
Photography is a powerful tool for progressive movements. During the Civil Rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s, activists used photography to display a more accurate representation of the movement than the media could. The ACT UP movement—whose goal was to bring awareness and attention to the AIDS crisis during the 1980s and 1990s—also produced their own images to convey the importance of their mission. Photography has similarly been employed in recent years for climate activism; artists use photography to exhibit the effects of climate change in our environment and as a call to action against the climate crisis.
After attending the abortion rights protest, I showed the photo of the bright green sign to my mom. Her research at the time focused on the ways that Jews in the past have been involved with pro-choice activism. This protest marked a period of immense change with legislation about women’s rights, and this photo is a snapshot of that. Someday in the future, some historian—like my mom—who is researching reproductive rights advocacy during the overturning of Roe v. Wade could look at my photo as a display of Jewish involvement in pro-choice activism.
Through the pictures I took of the protest against the Supreme Court decision which overturned Roe v. Wade, I used photography as a way to exhibit women’s rights issues, just like Diana Mara Henry and many other activists did. The picture I took of the “Jews for Abortion Justice” sign documents the intersection of feminism and Judaism, as showcased in both Diana Mara Henry’s work and my own. Inspired by Henry’s legacy, I look forward to developing my skills and continuing to use photography in the service of social change.
This piece was written as part of JWA’s Rising Voices Fellowship.