The Franki Raffles Photography Collection Part II

Friday 19 February 2021

In the second part of the blog series on the Franki Raffles Photography Collection, Weitian Liu picks several highlights of the collection as an introduction to this substantial body of work.

Instead of offering an overview, this blog post highlights several lesser-known aspects of Franki Raffles’ work in the hope that they can help illustrate how the documentary power of photography, the pursuit of social justice, and the commitment to feminism come together in her photographic practice.

Simply Women: Photographs from the XIII Commonwealth Games

Simply Women is a series of photographs documenting women’s participation in the 13th Commonwealth Games held in Edinburgh in July and August 1986. Commissioned by Edinburgh District Council’s Department of Education, Raffles photographed not only female athletes who competed in the sports but also female staff who worked for the Games in various capacities. The resultant exhibition, Simply Women: Photographs from the XIII Commonwealth Games, consisted of some 45 images and was divided into sections representing ‘Preparation, Competition and Recovery’. The exhibition was initially shown at Meadowbank Sports Centre in Edinburgh and then toured venues, libraries, and community centres across the city from December 1986 to May 1987.

In addition to poignantly capturing the fraught gender relations manifest in the Games, Raffles photographed the anti-apartheid protest outside of the stadium. In response to Britain’s opposition to the imposition of sanctions on South Africa under Margaret Thatcher’s government, a demonstration was formed to protest Thatcher’s visit to Meadowbank Stadium. Although these photographs were not included in the resulting exhibition, they demonstrate Raffles’ acute awareness of the political context that embedded the event she was commissioned to photograph. Preserved in the archive in the form of negatives, these images receive new meanings that go beyond the purpose of the original commission. They can be understood, for example, as an indication of Scotland’s participation in anti-apartheid politics at large as well as the tense relationship between Edinburgh District Council and the Westminster government over the issue of apartheid.

All the contact sheets of this series have been digitised and are available to view here.

Lothian Health Campaign

In 1992, what was then the Lothian Health Board adopted a Healthy Workplace Strategy which aimed to ‘protect and improve the health and wellbeing of employees working within the NHS in Lothian’. In the following year, work was done to raise awareness among local NHS staff about the strategy and encourage staff participation in related research. From June to November 1993, Raffles was commissioned by the Lothian Health Education Department to take photographs of staff at work within all six hospital units in Lothian—West Lothian, Western General, Royal Infirmary, Priority Care, East Lothian, and the Royal Hospital for Sick Children. The project included photographs of medical staff, ward staff, and ancillary staff, and covered a range of hospital departments including the department of Clinical Neurosciences, the microbiology laboratory, staff canteens and laundry rooms.

The resultant project covered various departments and units within each hospital, including the department of clinical neurosciences, the microbiology laboratory, staff canteens, laundry rooms, and the works department. Among Raffles’ subjects were not only medical staff, ward staff, ancillary staff, but also canteen workers and laundry workers who also made an indispensable contribution to the day-to-day running of a hospital. The photographs were then made into an exhibition on staff health and displayed in the hospitals and other NHS units.

All the contact sheets of this series have been digitised and are available to view here.

Documenting Women’s Groups and their activities

Between 1985 and 1992, Raffles extensively photographed women’s groups in Scotland and their activities. Many of these photographs resulted from Raffles’ collaboration with the Edinburgh District Council Women’s Committee, which was established in May 1984 under the Labour administration of Edinburgh District Council. The Women’s Committee and its Women’s Unit dealt with social issues and policy areas such as women’s participation in leisure activities, the cervical cancer screening service in Lothian, childcare provision, women’s training and employment, refuge for black/Asian women, domestic abuse, housing for women, etc. All these concerns, as well as activities and events organised by the Women’s Unit and other women’s groups around Edinburgh, are reflected in Raffles’ photographs during this period. Some of these photographs appeared in publications such as The Women’s Directory for Edinburgh, a 1987 directory containing over 300 contact addresses of activities and organisations dedicated to promoting the welfare and interests of women in Edinburgh.

A substantial number of photographs of social housing in Scotland can also be found in the collection. Taken approximately between 1987 and 1988, these images could be related to the women and housing subcommittee of the Women’s Committee. As indicated by the captions, the locations of the social housing photographed by Raffles range from Niddrie House, Muirhouse, and Wester Hailes in Edinburgh, to Govan in Glasgow and some other areas in Stirling and Fife. These images document not only a variety of social homes and their environs but also the lives of social housing tenants. Some of the photographs are focused on ethnic groups, women, and the issue of childcare—these are some of the key themes Raffles kept revisiting throughout her career.

Overseas Trips: China, the Soviet Union, and Israel

Apart from doing freelancing work in Scotland, Raffles also travelled extensively throughout her career, photographing women in different social contexts and investigating the problems facing women through cross-cultural comparisons. Her visit to China in 1984-1985 resulted in a rich documentation of the diverse cultural landscapes of the country in a time of rapid political and social change. The same trip took her to the Soviet Union, India, Nepal, and the Philippines, where she photographed a variety of subjects ranging from Buddhist architecture to armed conflicts in the street.

In the summer of 1989, she visited the Soviet Union again to photograph women workers. Cumulatively these images form a depiction of the lives and experiences of ordinary Soviet women during what would soon become the final months of the Soviet communist system. This project was made into an exhibition at a community centre in Glasgow in the following year. Entitled ‘Women Workers: An Exhibition about Women and Work in Glasgow and the Soviet Union’, the exhibition included both the Soviet Women project and her photographs of women workers in Glasgow taken immediately after she returned to Scotland from the Soviet Union. The latter project is named Non-traditional Work.

Raffles’ last and unfinished project, Lot’s Wife, was a highly personal adventure informed by her own cultural identity. Featuring both photographs and texts, this project revolved around the lives of Russian Jewish women who had emigrated to Israel following the disintegration of the Soviet Union. Sadly, Raffles’ career was suddenly cut short in December 1994 when she died in the Simpson Memorial Hospital, Edinburgh, after giving birth to twin daughters. This intimate and powerful work remained unfinished and has never been exhibited publicly.

All the contact sheets of this series have been digitised and are available to view here.

What has been included here is a selection from the more organised series of the collection. A wealth of other interesting materials can be found in other parts of the collection, especially those that are not accompanied with textual documentation or background information. The recently completed catalogue of the collection provides the ground for further research on Raffles’ career and for associating these materials with other resources across collections and institutions. A list of resources related to Raffles’ work and this collection is provided in the first part of this blog series. Do get in touch if you would like to find out more about the Franki Raffles Photography Collection.

Weitian Liu
Enlight Foundation Trainee

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