Volunteer MUSA blogger, Katryn Kavaliova, celebrates the life and work of photographer and St Andrews alumna, Franki Raffles.
The photographic body of work by Franki Raffles serves as a poignant insight into the fight for women’s rights at the end of the twentieth century. After graduating from the University of St Andrews in 1977 (M.A. in Moral Philosophy), Raffles spent the majority of her professional career seeking to incite truths by focusing on documentary photography. Women Workers in the USSR (1989) is one of her most renowned series and explores female identity in the Soviet Union. Rather than seeing the Soviet Union as a sworn enemy of the West during the last decade of the cold war, Raffles managed to portray the overarching debate of what it means to be a woman and show that the struggles for women’s rights are universal regardless of geographical borders or political tensions.
In her memoirs, Franki Raffles recounts her first trip to the Soviet Union and draws on her fascination at the fact that Russian women were widely seen carrying out jobs that in the West would be considered male-dominant professions. Raffles describes the impact of seeing women in the roles of builders, bus drivers, factory workers and farmers during her first to the Soviet Union at the age of 15 would have on her career, so much so that she would return to the USSR several times in the years leading up to the fall of communism and document her travels with the help of her trusty black and white film.
It is not hard to see the Marxist-Leninist ideologies of Raffles shine through in such depictions of shared duties and labour. Despite the physically straining factors of the tasks these women are carrying out, they appear to engage in casual conversation and their expressions of laughter do not convey the true strains of their professions. Anyone familiar with art history may recall the works of Jean-François Millet that depict labouring peasants. These depictions are idyllic in their simplicity and infused with nostalgia for the organic approach to life that was disappearing with the rise of industrialisation in the nineteenth-century. Similarly, in her photography of Soviet women, Raffles seeks a peaceful simplicity – the equality between men and women. But unlike Millet’s utopia in which he hopes to return to a past unadorned with complexity, Raffles’ utopia is one of equality which cannot be found in the past but is yet to manifest in the future. Thus, the untraditional roles occupied by such women come closest to what Franki Raffles hoped of society to become. The silky tones of her black and white film further reinforce the idea of stripping things back to their most natural and authentic forms and convey a kind of intimacy that would arguably be lost if she had opted for colour instead.
Yet, back in Scotland, Raffles’s photography was far from idealised and, by contrast, captured the confronting reality of domestic violence towards women in the 1992 Zero Tolerance campaign for the Edinburgh District Council. Here her work portrays a sinister aspect which conceals the dangers of domestic abuse rather than showing an open understanding of a situation present in her Soviet series.
Certainly, Franki Raffles’s ability to change the genres of her work so drastically in order to convey various aspects of womanhood serve as a testament to her talent as a photographer. Her innate ability to capture human nature and her strong will to advocate justice makes Raffles an incredibly powerful storyteller. It is, therefore, extremely unfortunate that despite such raw talent and understanding of what it is like to be a woman across the globe, a lot of her work remained disregarded for quite some time after her unanticipated death in 1994.
University of St Andrews has partnered up with Edinburgh Napier University in an effort to conduct a research project into the life and work of Franki Raffles. Further information about the ongoing research can be found at: http://www.frankirafflesarchive.org/about/
by Katryn Kavaliova