Women Helping Women

Artists as Activists

Saad Ghosn, Contributing Writer

Barbara Houghton’s photographs are about her as a woman, and about women in general.

“I am a person alive who looks at and questions our humanity,” says Barbara Houghton. “I do not see the people in my photographs as other but as people who could be me. In the beginning all my work was about me, who I was and my place in the world. Later, it naturally expanded into addressing womanhood and women’s role in society.”

Houghton, an artist photographer and art professor at Northern Kentucky University (NKU), grew up in Chicago, the 2nd child in a family of 12, many with strong artistic talents. Always creative herself, drawing and painting as a kid, and enrolled in all art classes in her high school, she was destined to become a commercial artist. In undergrad at the University of Illinois, she discovered, however, her love for photography and ended up graduating from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago with a MFA degree in photo. She taught photography for 18 years at Metro State College in Denver, CO, then came in 1992 to NKU as Chair of the Art department, and more recently as art faculty professor.

Houghton’s photos have always been personal, initially self-portraits and pictures of people from her family, allowing her to explore and be who she wanted to be. While in Denver, she did a series of self-portraits in infrared, then a series of large photograms of her clothes, of old and ripped underwear. “I was putting myself out on paper,” she says, “also wanting people to think and laugh.”

When she 1st got to NKU she did a series of photographs on the unknown, Terra Incognita, examining boundaries and where she fit in the world, using images of navigation instruments as metaphors. It was followed by Journey, a combination of photographs and objects about one’s personal experiences, revelations, interactions, relationships in life.

Dancing with Galileo, a multimedia installation including modified photographs, objects, text, music, dance, video, was about her affinity and love for a brilliant scientist, a man who like her was free-spirited, unconventional, and willing to fight for the truth. Galileo, raised Catholic, did not hesitate to battle the ignorance and hypocrisy of the church, supporting on the other hand its principled spiritual teachings. To document and create her works, Houghton traveled throughout Italy, visiting places where Galileo lived, his house, the institutions where he made his discoveries and taught, the convent where resided his beloved daughter. She took many photographs that she later manipulated; adding to them researched elements from books, text and images, composing the all like a montage.

When confronted with political upheaval and violence, Houghton witnessed and reflected through her photographs. In her Popular Culture series she used images about the war in Iraq and the Abu Ghraib case, popular images she noticed or reacted to wandering the streets, thus using her camera to speak not only for herself, but also for the common individual, stating what she felt both would condone or condemn. In Learning the Sport/ Unsportsmanlike Conduct, she commented on the intricate relationship between sports, sex and violence, on how sports had become religion-like in our country.

All along Houghton had been concerned by the unequal condition and neglected role of women in many parts of the world.  She became very interested in SEWA, Self Employed Women’s Association, a trade union of poor self-employed women in India, started in 1972 by Ela Bhatt, a young female Indian Lawyer.  She had experienced the economic exploitation and lack of power of working Indian women and wanted to organize them so they would become protected by labor laws and self-reliant.  SEWA, essentially a woman’s cooperative, grew quickly from its banks…a trade facilitation networks for maternity needs, health care, and life insurance.  Houghton wanted to travel to India to experience firsthand their work, meet the women members and document their various supportive activities in her photographs.  After seeing the movie “Water” Directed by Deepa Mehta, she had also learned about the abusive situation of widows in India, often chased from their husband’s homes after their deaths, forced into poverty and left begging on the streets.  Researching the matter, she came across the work of Dr. V. Mohini Giri, a social activist and leader in the Indian Women’s movement; her organization guild of service which helps the displaced widows.  The new shelter Ma Dham built in Vrindavan to lodge, feed, train, and help the destitute widows helped them lead a healthy, dignified life.  Houghton contacted Dr Giri and headed to India, traveling many places, photographing women; mothers, wives, workers, widows…depicting their condition yet beauty…their potential power.  Her photographs gave birth to her series Changing India, One Woman at a Time, which she exhibited in 2010 at NKU.

Widows of Ma Dham, a photo from the series , represents widows rejoicing, singing, and swaying at the news that they will be finally receiving their government pension, now that they had home and would not be considered homeless anymore.

“I wanted to photograph women helping women, and empower them in the process,” says Houghton. “India was a good place as women there are often ignored. But this was also true of America where women are frequently valued mostly based on their looks. As a middle age woman, I recognize myself the feeling; when I leave my hair grey, I become almost invisible…”

Barbara Houghton in her studio holding one of her photographs of an Indian woman. Source: Bill Howes

Houghton also brings her concern to liberate and empower women to her classroom. She strongly associates with her young girl students who frequently are lost trying to figure out who they are. They remind her of herself, of how she metamorphosed from a weak woman to a more assertive one; and she does all she can to help them, guide them, teach them how to be strong.

“All trajectories of my works are connected,” says Houghton. “They all fall in the broader context of the human; from the questioning about myself, a woman, an artist, what I wear, where and how I fit in the world, my journey; to the free-thinking and rebellious Galileo, the image of a man I fell in love with; to the oppressed and exploited women of India; to women in general…

Widows of Ma Dham Source: Barbara Houghton

When I make art it empowers me, helps me find my way; it has changed my life. I want to share it with others hoping it might achieve the same.”