I’ve been saving photographs of women in protest for a decade, or, for as long as I’ve been collecting images at all. I look closely for written signs, for obvious and less-than-obvious reasons: I am moved by the ability of language to act as a device for externalizing rage, by the possibility of collective action and inaction, by what it looks like when women demonstrate agency, intent, outrage, urgency, and joy. I’ve formed entire exhibitions around single found images of the language on women’s protest signs—Who Says Pain Is Erotic? in 2016 and Anita Told the Truth in 2017 both pivoted around photographs of a single, hand-made sign, re-articulated as the title of each show. Until now, I have worked with them individually—as points of departure—rather than communally, which is of course how they belong.

The images that appear on these billboards—26 of them, like a complete alphabet, an intact language set—are sourced from all over the world. Not only figuratively, in that they represent global movements and protests, but also literally: over the years, I have sought out material from over a dozen countries, ranging from the United States to Canada, Liberia to Malaysia. Each photograph is tightly cropped; all outside information (age and ethnicity of the purveyor, density of the group, larger environmental setting) has been removed beyond the language itself. Looking closer is always a give and take: the nearer we get to a thing, the clearer we see it, and the more outside information we lose. As a strategy, the crop is both generous and unfair—it underscores a message while removing its historical specificity. The words “Never Forget,” for instance, could have any number of associations; across this project, such information is annexed and unfastened from its source.

These signs are, directly and indirectly, a reaction to the ways in which women circulate in public space, relate to their own bodies, access the tools of power and peace, and interact with instruments of social control. Where else could they live but back on billboards, the grand conveyor of gendered behaviour? Several of the billboards respond directly to advertising, as with “this is a male sexual fantasy”—language that was written on top of a photograph of a billboard, printed out and pasted onto a hand-held cardboard sign. Here is a doubling—and tripling—of the way we look, and look back. In this work, photographs of women responding to the consumer culture that constrains and subdues them are placed in the very space from which it’s projected in the first place—a critical repossession.

Taken as a whole, these billboards demarcate a feminist space, and its history. They might even be thought of as a poem, jagged paragraph, or ambiguous thesis statement on the relationship of social movements to language. These pictures speak to the immense number of women-led protests that have been witnessed by our present moment. For once, photography does not act as the documentary device. It is, instead, our mirror. —Carmen Winant

9 Ave at 9 St SE
9 Ave at 11 St SE
9 Ave at 12 St SE

Jasper Ave at 117 St

North St at Alderney Dr

Van Horne Ave at St Laurent Blvd & St Urbain

Cumberland St at Besserer St

20th St W and Ave H
Ave J and Idylwyld Dr

Clark Dr at East 4 Ave
Clark Dr at East 2 Ave

McDermot Ave at Hargrave St
Bannatyne Ave at Hargrave St