Laia Abril's Thinspiration Photos Are Unbearable

For her fanzine, the photographer examined how eating disorders make people self-destruct.

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Sep 13 2014, 10:40am

Image from Thinspiration Fanzine. Photo courtesy of Laia Abril / INSTITUTE

There are some photographs so unbearable to look at that you can’t take your eyes off them. The images in Laia Abril’s Thinspiration fanzine fit into this category. Her re-photographed pro-ana selfies show girls flaunting angular, emaciated bodies: impossibly wide thigh gaps, ribs straining through skin, jutting hipbones, and concave stomachs.

Laia’s work has focused on eating disorders since 2010. The latest chapter in her project, The Epilogue, is published this month and tells the story of an American girl called Mary Cameron “Cammy” Robinson, who died of bulimia at 26. Through interviews, photographs, and other found materials, the book reconstructs Cammy's life and the aftermath of her death, asking how the illness makes a person self-destruct and how it affects those around them.

I caught up with Laia over the phone to find out more.

VICE: Eating disorders are a big focus of your work. What drew you to this issue?
Laia Abril: It was inspired by personal experience and the fact that there’s a lack of information. If someone’s daughter has bulimia and they don’t see the signs, that girl might die of a heart attack and they’d never know she’d had an eating disorder.

Bulimia is also one of the most stigmatized eating disorders. It’s seen as shameful. My aim was to break these taboos. With photography we’re often documenting what happens in other societies—wars, poverty. I thought, Here’s another epidemic we could try to prevent.

Photo courtesy of Laia Abril / INSTITUTE

For your last publication, Thinspiration fanzine, you re-photographed selfies from pro-ana websites. Why?
Pro-ana sites started around 2000. I remember them from that time, when I was a teenager, but it’s an aspect of eating disorders the media doesn’t pay much attention to. When I started researching them, I thought I’d find images of thin models or actors but there were hundreds of what we now call selfies promoting anorexia. I was shocked.

I decided to photograph them because I wanted to talk about the use of photography. The project is about how I felt when I was looking at those images.

We often think of anorexics hating their bodies but these shots are quite exhibitionist. Did that surprise you?
Knowing lots of people with eating disorders, I struggled with the images. There are so many people who want to get better, and here are these people who want to get worse. Girls on these pro-ana sites say they want to be anorexic. But it’s part of their illness. I think they don’t see themselves as people any more. They show parts of their body—bones, bellies, clavicles—and you can see the process of how they’re losing their identities.

Thinspiration Project exhibited in Barcelona, Spain

Do you think pro-ana websites should be shut down?
The year I started researching these websites there was a news article saying that traffic on them had increased almost 500 percent in that year. In some countries, like France, they made it illegal and they shut down websites. But now the pro-ana movement isn’t just on websites but social media too. You see #proana as a hashtag on Instagram; you see pro-ana Tumblrs. It’s much harder for the authorities to pursue.

Personally, I don’t think that’s the solution. You shut down a website and in an hour you have ten new ones. I’d rather pursue fashion magazines that feature anorexic models on the cover. Thinspiration is much more dangerous when you see it in the mainstream.

Did you have the idea for The Epilogue before meeting Cammy Robinson’s family?
Yes. I knew I wanted to do something about death from eating disorders. Before approaching a family, who would be in pain, I had to be clear about how I would do this. I decided to explain the girl’s story as a puzzle, with the pieces of her life supplied by her loved ones.

I emailed hundreds of eating disorder foundations, at first in the UK, and then in the US because it’s a bigger country so there was a higher probability of finding someone. The UK and US have the highest rates of eating disorders. I found the Robinson family through their foundation, although I didn’t realize at first that it was inspired by their daughter.

Cover of The Epilogue. Photo courtesy of Josef Chladek

How did the family feel about your project?
Jan Robinson [Cammy’s mother] answered my email right away. She uses this foundation as a way of healing and she wanted something good to come out of what had happened to her family. She told me remembering Cammy is one of the biggest joys in her life so she was very open.

The rest of the family were more cautious because they didn’t know me and were worried about going through the pain again. But they’re happy with the book now. I think it’s been a cathartic experience for them.

In The Epilogue, Cammy’s therapist talks about the impact of family pressures on her illness.
An eating disorder develops from more than 50 different triggers. It’s never just one thing. It’s never somebody’s fault. If you completely changed the fashion industry, it doesn’t mean there wouldn’t be eating disorders. Also, it’s not like before when advertising was just in magazines or on TV. Now we’re bombarded with images—on our phones, everywhere. I think it’s about education—trying to get kids to understand that they aren’t just what they look like.

An image of Cammy's scales from The Epilogue. Photo courtesy of Laia Abril / INSTITUTE

In both projects you re-photographed found images. What does it mean to re-photograph? How does the new image relate to the original?
With thinspiration, because the primary images are so vernacular and simple, they don’t always reflect what the girls wanted them to. For instance, they want to show how separated their legs are but they take a picture where you can see the whole of their bedroom or the bathroom or whatever. So I focused in on what they wanted to show. I was curating their vision. Having those pictures in museums, as I have recently, is like an ironic expression of whether that is the ideal of beauty.

The Epilogue is completely different. I didn’t do anything to the found pictures. I photographed the present and the past I could reconstruct by going to her old high school but I can’t photograph her because she’s dead. So the re-photographed material is a tool for storytelling. Thinspiration was a conversation between my photography and their photography. Here it’s an archival process—I collect interviews, I collect my pictures, their pictures, documents.

The Thinspiration images are shocking. Is The Epilogue an attempt to counter that by finding a new visual language to talk about eating disorders?
You sometimes need to shock and sometimes not to shock. With Thinspiration I needed to shock because if you haven’t seen those images you can’t picture how awful they are.

But everyone knows death is tragic. With The Epilogue, I wanted to show Cammy’s suffering and the family’s grieving process. For people to engage with the story, you have to be much more delicate. It’s like photojournalism: it’s fine to show images of people getting killed when you’re denouncing that but if you want people to understand why that’s happening, you need to find a different visual approach.

Thank you, Laia.

You can see more of both projects on Laia’s website.

The Epilogue is published in September by Dewi Lewis Media with art direction  by Ramon Pez.

Follow Rachel Segal Hamilton on Twitter.

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