You have likely seen the image above. The photograph of a 20-week old fetus was taken by Swedish photographer Lennart Nilsson. Another of his photographs graced the cover of Life magazine in April of 1965:
Nilsson’s images forever changed the way that people think about fetuses. His haunting pictures made it possible for a woman, and her society, to visualize the contents of her womb and to do so independently of her body. Notice how the images do not depict the relationship between the fetus and the woman… they simply depict the fetus. Suddenly, with these images, the fetus came to life. It was no longer just something inside of a woman, it was an individual with a face, a sex, a desire to suck its thumb.
In the 1970s, the pro-life movement began using the images. Once the fetus could be idividualized, arguments in favor of its preservation could be made more powerfully. The beautiful photos, further, romanticized the fetus, discouraging abortion. The pictures served to suggest, essentially, that fetuses weren’t so different from babies.
This testifies to the power of visualization and how technological advances can have significant political ramifications.
There is more, though, to Nilsson’s photographs.
It turns out that the photographs are not of fetuses in the womb, they are photographs of aborted fetuses.
Although claiming to show the living fetus, Nilsson actually photographed abortus material obtained from women who terminated their pregnancies under the liberal Swedish law. Working with dead embryos allowed Nilsson to experiment with lighting, background and positions, such as placing the thumb into the fetus’ mouth.
– Quote from the University of Cambridge’s history of the science of fetal development (found via Jezebel).
There is something wildly ironic about the fact that liberal abortion rights laws resulted in a product that was used to mobilize anti-abortion sentiment.
And there is an interesting story here, too, about photography and the real. What is real? And can pictures lie?
For another interesting controversy regarding photography, see our post on Shelby Lee Adam’s images of Appalacians.