Anne Leighton Massoni while traveling in Puglia, Italy 2021

All images courtesy of the artist.

Anne Leighton Massoni has a theory: she believes everyone’s fifth birthday looks practically the same photographically, yet when it’s our fifth birthday, the images conjure the unique experience of memory and time. 

Her theory is a tangible thread, one she pulls throughout her practice. As a maker and a storyteller, Massoni explores the space between truth and fiction, the place between revealing and holding secret. Using created images in conjunction with found imagery, Massoni reimagines stories we experience yet cannot express. She turns secrets and stories not yet told into their own forms of evidence. Evidence of memory, evidence of experience, evidence of our collective and singular experience. Studium. Punctum.

From Maryland to Maine, Anne and I spoke intimately about coming to terms with holding secrets and how sharing can become in service to healing. Our conversation occurred in the shadow of the Dobbs ruling and is intended as a companion to the online exhibition, unspoken.

Sarah E Webb: Tell us how photography became your primary tool and means to explore the act of making?

Anne Leighton Massoni: When I was sixteen, I went to the Soviet Union as a student ambassador for People to People’s Friendship Caravan. As a traveler, I sometimes lacked language, but photography became an important way for me to interact. Holding a camera became my way to communicate and cultivate curiosity about each other’s lives through the focal point of the lens. In asking to take someone’s picture, I learned how to connect, respect, and honor the boundaries of their space.

I began to understand more about memory and the act of remembering through making and keeping – my photographs became evidence of my experience. I was telling stories by choosing what picture to make, and because these were images made on film, the number of images produced was fixed and finite.   

Even today, when I look back at those early photographs, they serve as a trigger for the story of being in that place and being with those people. From that point on, a camera went with me everywhere. 

Girl in Window and Three Soldiers, Ukraine (USSR), 1989

It wasn’t until graduate school that I understood my interest in photography could be far more expansive than a particular way of practicing. One could say I fell in love with this medium capable of being as much about the rigor and the consistency of a lens as it could be about the making and altering of lens-based images and materials.

My time in grad school coincided with the advent of digital photography. It was a time of technical exploration and (for me) heavy manipulation, whether through analog or digital means. So many exciting things were beginning to happen, and I was enamored with it all – the math, the science, the history, the practical applications, and the seemingly endless artistic pathways photography offered. 

SEW: Much of your work explores how images form both real and fabricated fragments of memory and identity. We construct our stories, connect through story, and are constrained by story. Regardless of subject matter or media, can you say more about how these themes come into play in your work?

ALM: My approach to memory and storytelling is through the lens of photography, frequently combining my imagery with the found photographs of others. I rely upon vernacular images and the structure of the photo album as a reference point to explore the space between revealing and holding secrets – although I’m less interested in holding anything back these days.

Mnasthai, 125-350 found photographs of babies in white with gray string tied around each image, 2003

SEW: Let’s continue this conversation through two distinct yet equally iterative bodies of work. Memoria| Mnasthai (2003) and Holding (2007-2014) have the same story hidden between the multiplicity of their layers.

ALM: Early in 2000, I learned I was pregnant. My partner and I had previously discussed that he was not interested in being a parent, largely due to the abuse he’d experienced as a child. On the other hand, he was equally resolute that abortion was not an option for him for religious reasons and that with my decision to have an abortion, we would keep the experience secret from our family and friends. I had an abortion on Friday and was back in classes on Monday, and for almost nine years, I didn’t tell a soul. 

My partner and I practiced safe sex, we used contraception, and it failed us, so when I found out I was pregnant, I was devastated on several levels. On the one hand, I knew my partner did not want this child, and on the other hand, I wanted children – but I did not want to raise a child alone, knowing that their father did not want them. Until then, I had wanted to be a parent, don’t get me wrong, it also scared me to think of the responsibility, but I’d certainly imagined a future with a partner and children. 

I could accept that life throws us curve balls, and I might end up a single parent – but I didn’t want to bring a child into this world knowing their father did not want them and would not parent them. My partner would have preferred I carry to term and put the child up for adoption. I knew I could not do that – I would want too much to keep the child, and I could not start their life off with the narrative that they were unwanted by their father and wanted but not kept by their mother. 

Termination was the only option for me. 

SEW: Are you comfortable saying more about the experience itself?

ALM: I was six weeks pregnant when I terminated my pregnancy. I remember the kind and generous aids, nurses, and doctors. I remember a warm hand holding mine through the procedure, and I remember two drops of blood on the white linoleum that shaped a heart as I stepped out of the stirrups and into the recovery room. That heart became my mnemonic device for remembering.

I chose to respect my partner’s wishes, but in keeping a damaging secret, I prevented myself from healing, digging a metaphorical hole that felt so hollow and alone. Still, I would not change the choice I made. 

I only wish I’d had the comfort of other women, my parents, and my friends to help me heal and move forward sooner – they have been there for me from the moment I determined that I no longer owed my partner my life by remaining silent. I know that I am less changed because of the abortion itself. It was the right decision at the right time in my life. However, I know I was profoundly changed by the silence and without the support of my community. I regret not having had the strength and sense of autonomy to reach out to them sooner. I wished then and want even more now for women to feel like they are supported by one another. To know that our stories are not so rare even as they are incredibly personal.

SEW: You write that Memoria | Mnasthai (2003) is about “loss and mending…(the act of) remembering and gathering…regret and the ephemeral…childhood and death…each have a story hidden in their layers.” Although the word abortion is unspoken, it is the subject nonetheless.

ALM: In the absence of community, Memoria became my way to process the abortion, to process the silence and the quietness of being in that space alone.

In the aftermath of the abortion, I collected images of babies from the turn of the last century up and through the 1940s – found photographs of unknown children dressed in white, their attire speaking to the celebration of new life and possibility, frequently referencing the baptismal ceremony . 

As objects, the photographs are as precious as they are mysterious because we lack direct reference to who these people were or what happened beyond the pristine moment. And yet so too is how we live our lives: we may appear “picture perfect” for the camera, but we also stain our clothes. We all have a story: nothing nor no one gets out unscathed.

So in Memoria I created a laundry line of sorts and printed the images of children in their whites onto vellum – the intertwinedness of all of our lives becoming evident by the overlap and reveal of layers. And because these children are anonymous, their images cast aside by the proprietor of their likeness, they become every child. Still, they are also representatives of lives unlived as much as they are about lives that would be lived. 

Memoria (full and detail), images of babies in white printed on vellum and stitched to white cloth, 2003

With Mnasthai, on the other hand, I used the simple mnemonic device of tying a string around your finger – to remember. A thread or multiple threads tied around nearly every photograph of those same images of babies in white – the installation can grow to be 300+ in number. It was my way of calling memory into being: 

Mnasthai (detail), 125-350 found photographs of babies in white with gray string tied around each image, 2003

To remember terminating a pregnancy.

To remember the choices we make and the implications they have.

To remember the secret I held. 

To remember loss.

To remember grief. 

To remember possibilities. 

To remember death. 

To remember life. 

To remember heritage and lineage. 

To remember me.  

I know memory is a tricky thing. It’s as much fabricated as it is built from actual events, often shifting with time and circumstances. Our minds alter their realities and create new iterations of memories, sometimes new ones altogether.

I was not allowed to speak about my abortion, and there is a price to being silenced. But I could still make work, and in the process I could begin to heal.

SEW: In your series Holding, you revisit some of the same materials and mnemonic devices you utilized in Memoria| Mnasthai to create an entirely different landscape between truth and fiction. However, in this instance, the secret, the unborn child, is no longer buried. Can you say more about that personal decision to speak more publicly about a choice shared by many women and yet a choice they have been culturally conditioned to keep to themselves?

ALM: In 2009 I had to make the difficult decision to have my ovaries and uterus removed. I am BRCA1+ and have a family history of ovarian and breast cancer. Our earliest family onset of that cancer is in the late 30s, with the earliest death at 42. I was 36. Because of grapefruit-sized fibroids, my doctors could no longer image my ovaries to screen for cancer. I would no longer be able to count on early detection to save my life while maintaining reproductive options. I had to make a choice – prophylactic intervention or risking my life. I was bleeding 28 days out of 30/31 days because of the fibroids. I would eliminate my risk of ovarian cancer and be relieved from the physical pain of a compromised uterus. 

It was a painful time to lose another chance at motherhood and my options at a biological child completely. To be making decisions about my reproductive health that was so permanent. To still be in silence with those closest to me about having terminated a pregnancy nine years before. I decided to tell my parents and open up to friends. To heal, or at least begin the process. 

I am deeply committed to the many stories of the women in my family as my lineage and legacy, so I began The Holding series as a multi-chapter body of work. Each chapter is dedicated to a woman of influence – how their experiences shaped my story and my imaginings of theirs.

Holding Leighton: My Castle Striped Misery, archival digital print and hand painted acrylic line, 26×13, 2010

Holding Leighton was dedicated to the “what ifs” had I not terminated my pregnancy. And it was dedicated to the “what ifs” of the biological child I would now be unable to have. It felt right to create a chapter to hold the silence around an abortion that had so framed me as a person. It was a way to speak up and memorialize my own narrative around motherhood. The women in the rest of the chapters all have played a part in shaping my story; why not include a chapter about me shaping me. And so Holding Leighton is the child that wasn’t. It is the cavernous sorrow of secrecy; it is the child I would not have; it is me – it is Leighton. Leighton is my middle name, my maternal grandmother’s maiden name. It is the name I wanted to be as a teenager, and I had vowed it would be the name of my first child.

Holding Leighton: My Tomorrow Annie’s Orphans, archival digital print and hand painted acrylic line, 26×13, 2010

In Holding Leighton, I was pining for motherhood, and I was mourning the loss of motherhood. I was musing over the raising of a child that would never be. I was intertwining the past and the future and desperately shaking myself out of silence. 

Holding Leighton: My Beach Waiting Waters, archival digital print and hand painted acrylic line, 26×13, 2010

The work is a conversation imagined between what was and what wasn’t – between a child that didn’t exist and where I was currently living in real-time. I paired found photographs of anonymous children (ie, not Leighton) with images I made in and around Asbury Park, NJ. Then I drew a through-line between the two, holding space in honor of both realities, imagining where Leighton might have lived had they been born. 

Holding Leighton restored my voice, validating my lived and unlived experience. The work became my platform to share the significance of our stories with others. Our stories are our stories because of our choices. Mine are not the choices others would make, but my story is no less significant – I wish I’d had the voice to speak it sooner.

Holding Leighton: My Haze Flash Blink, archival digital print and hand painted acrylic line, 26×13, 2010

Holding Leighton: (left to right) My Hide-Away Red White, My Walk Elephant Company, My Advisor Long Lost, archival digital print and hand painted acrylic line, 26×13, 2010

SEW: On June 24, 2022, the Supreme Court officially reversed Roe v. Wade, declaring that the constitutional right to an abortion, upheld for nearly a half-century, no longer exists. As you and I have this conversation, the repercussions of this unprecedented decision and what comes next are still waiting to be known. 

ALM: At the moment, everything is still so raw for me. I’m angry and depressed. I am reminded of all the times I thought I was equal in this country (or in a relationship) only to learn I wasn’t – that I am NOT equal and never was. It’s a quiet rage as I try to preserve my strength through illness at the moment.

When I was making Memoria | Mnasthai and Holding Leighton, it never occurred to me that such a fundamental right, one I had known throughout my life, one that shaped how I lived my life, could be possibly overturned. And yet here we are.

I feel there is an affinity between these two potential categories of discarded anonymous children. It wasn’t my intention when working with discarded, vernacular images of anonymous children, and yet I can’t not see the parallels between discarded junk shop photographs of children and what has the potential to happen to children born in undesirable situations when abortion is no longer an option. 

I worry about what will become of children after they are born with no infrastructure to provide health care and social service. Once the potential of fetuses become living breathing beings, when they are discarded and seen as the problem, rather than granting autonomy to the living reproductive being and their right to choose.

SEW: During our conversation, you shared another unspoken story, one your mother held that shaped her history and your own. Can you tell the story itself and the price of her silence? 

ALM: My mother and father had an abortion pre-Roe v Wade three years before I was born. My brothers and I likely only exist because they had that abortion. They got married, became incredible partners to one another, and I could not ask for better parents.

When I was 11 years old, my mother pulled me into her arms on the sofa in our living room and told me about the baby that had come before me. I struggled to understand what she meant at that age. But she was clear and straightforward with her words – she used the word abortion. Her silence was and in many ways is still one of anguish, and the silence created a prolonged mourning and loneliness. And then she asked me to hold that secret. I learned firsthand what silence had done to her, and I embarked on a silence that would puzzle me for years to come that evening.

She found out she was pregnant in Ohio – so did I – she loved her partner – so did I – she wanted a family – so did I. Pre Roe she had to be declared unstable and mentally unwell to have an abortion by not one but two psychiatrists, a process that would prolong the medical procedure and therefore required a saline abortion – mine was my own choice to make, my body was my own, my mental health my own. I recognize how significant our deviated stories become – I cannot know hers and my greatest fear now is that too many women will. Maybe it is the lesson we will all learn in this – that our role is not to hide in the shadows of preconceived notions of right and wrong. Our stories must be told in service to our health and well-being and to improve the lives of future generations.

SEW: Thank you for your willingness to have this frank conversation in a public forum during such extraordinary times. In closing, tell us, what is your favorite instrument of memory?

ALM: Scent is the instrument of memory that always catches me off guard in the most meaningful way. I have lived in enough places that physical “place” is not my definition of home – but I know I’m home when I can drink in the smells of familiarity and the familial. When I encounter the hint of laundry coming off the line, I’m carried back to my childhood. The smell of my father (oh, how I miss that – and him) clean is the only way I can describe it, and I wonder if I’ll ever smell it again.

SEW: Thank you, Anne!

Anne Leighton Massoni, is the former Dean and Managing Director of Education at the International Center of Photography in New York City. She has also held positions at, Cornell University, Memphis College of Art, and the University of the Arts. Massoni graduated with a MFA in Photography from Ohio University and BAs in Photography and Anthropology from Connecticut College. Her work relates to ideas of both real and fabricated memories and identity, using a variety of film and digital techniques. She has exhibited nationally and internationally including the H. F. Johnson Museum in New York, The Print Center in Philadelphia, The Sol Mednick Gallery in Philadelphia, NIH in Washington, DC, the Allen Sheppard Gallery in New York City, Newspace Gallery in Portland, Rayko in San Francisco, the East End Film Festival in London, England, the International Mobile Innovation Screening in New Zealand and Australia, and IlCantinonearte Teatri e Galleria del Grifo in Montepulciano, Italy. Publications of her work include ASPECT: The Chronicle of New Media Art and SpostaMenti, an exhibition catalog of her series “Holding” and The Photograph & The Album, Published by MuseumsEtc in England. She co-edited The Focal Press Companion to the Constructed Image in Contemporary Photography with Marni Shindelman. 

If you are interested in learning more about Anne’s work, check out her website www.anneleightonmassoni.com

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