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24 April 2018
The Photographers’ Gallery, Ramillies Street, London
Seeing the photograph will be a shock.
It always is. Even though she is the one who took it.
Veronica leans against the wall opposite the gallery entrance, braces herself, and turns her eyes to the poster. The no-nonsense font declares: ‘Women in their Power: Veronica Moon and Second Wave Feminism: 26 April—26 August 2018’. Two days from now. Vee reads the words until they cease any sense they were making, and then she makes herself look at the image. Doing it here, publicly, with cyclists skimming through her field of vision and grimy London noise all around, makes her feel half-disappeared already.
The feelings have never changed, even if the memory is long gone. Love and loss and ache and sheer flaming rage at everything that was taken from her in the moment that she pressed the button that opened and closed the shutter faster than a final blink. Vee is top-full of it all, still, even after all of these years.
Leonie, the woman she loved as she has loved no one else in her seventy years, glowers from the frame. Her heavy brow, half-closed eyes, great arc of a nose, all suit being enlarged to poster size. Leonie always knew that she deserved more space than the world gave her. The black and white image looks contemporary after thirty years, as the novelty of colour and fuss in photography has come into fashion and gone again.
Veronica can, if she tries, admire this as a photograph. All of her craft is here: the way she managed the light, chose the angle, created a portrait that is both greater than Leonie and the very essence of her, distilled to an almost unbearable likeness. But there are good reasons why she avoids it. It was the moment of the two greatest losses of her life.
Even now, when she should be facing everything, resolving everything, when her eyes should be taking in all that they can before it’s too late, she cannot bear to look at this image for long.
Whether Vee likes it or not, it’s what she will be remembered for. Though if she had been a war photographer, she would have been congratulated. If she had been a man, come to that. Unflinching, they would have said. Bold. Uncompromising. Veronica, by virtue of being a woman: heartless, ambitious, unfeeling, selfish. Career over.
Part 1: Subject
First, forget all you think you know about the camera being a neutral object, a benign, unlying eye, watching and capturing everything without judging or deciding. That’s what the world wants you to think.
In the hands of a true photographer, a camera can be clever, wily, sharp, cutting; it can be consoling, healing or divisive; it can be smart. It should definitely be smart. At least as smart as the person who is holding it. And if that person is a woman, she will know already how to pay attention, to watch the world around her for signs and clues to what she needs to be careful of.