Galvanising Campaigns

“In Scotland, 900,000 people (46.3% of the total workforce) are low paid, of these 69% are women and 41% are part time.” These statistics come from a publication released as part of the 1988 exhibition, titled To Let You Understand. The show was a collaboration between the Edinburgh District Council’s Women’s Committee and esteemed feminist documentary photographer Franki Raffles (1955-1994). Monochromatic images showed women’s labour alongside their words, allowing subjects to “put on record how they felt about their work and their lives.” Raffles was an image-maker who dedicated her life to amplifying the voices of women. For her, the camera was a tool to shine a light on various aspects of their unique, lived experiences. Now, Baltic opens the first ever major survey of Raffles’ ground-breaking career. This retrospective shines a light on her extraordinary output between 1984 and 1994, where the photojournalist produced 40,000 images. It’s a testament to her commitment to recognising sisterhood across borders, whilst exploring important issues, such as inequality and gender-based violence.

Based in Edinburgh, Raffles focused on women in the Scottish capital and beyond. We see this in To Let You Understand (1987-1988), which draws attention to the hard-hitting statistics collected by the Committee’s Women’s Unit about low pay, childcare and lack of equal opportunities. Viewers could also see these realities and read about them in the accompanying quotes. In one scene, we see a woman alone surrounded by folded laundry as she begins to lift a stack. Below, the NHS worker explains: “It’s hard work but needs done. We do the laundry for most of the hospitals in Edinburgh. I go home at night shattered – the last thing I want to do is cook a meal or see to the house.” These images featured women in their paid working environments and in the role of mothers performing uncompensated domestic duties. Raffles continued to document female labour in her future projects, such as Soviet Women (1989) and Non-traditional Work (1989-1990). A common thread across these projects is the desire to highlight often overlooked labour and achieve solidarity among women in similar circumstances all around the world.

Raffles is best known for her advocacy. In 1992, Raffles also collaborated with the Edinburgh City Council’s Women’s Unit to create the Zero Tolerance campaign, which was led by Campaigns officer Evelyn Gillan. For six months, the city was covered in a series of billboards and banners raising awareness of male violence against women. Large-scale black and white tableaux showed women and girls in cheerful scenes together, captioned with harrowing facts and statistics highlighting the prevalence of sexual violence. One shot takes us to a room where two girls are playing with Legos on the floor. The text reads: “By the time they reach eighteen, one of them will have been subjected to sexual abuse.” Raffles intentionally presents positive visuals to avoid the representation of women as bruised victims, which is common imagery found in other campaigns. Here, heightened contrast – from colour scheme to subject matter – emphasises the gravity of the campaign’s key message: “From flashing to rape – male abuse of power is a crime.”

Zero Tolerance not only raised understanding of gender-based violence but also demanded that the public, politicians and legal professionals confront their own prejudices and take responsibility for eradicating this horrific reality. The campaign grew into a charity that continues to fight against gender inequality and violence today. In 2017, Co-Director Liz Ely reflected on the impact of the project 25 years later. She told The Herald: “There have been dramatic changes to public attitudes around some aspects of men’s violence against women. However, some forms of violence, targeted at groups such as women with learning disabilities, women in prostitution, LGBT and Black and minority ethnic women remain poorly understood.”

Decades later, Raffles’ work remains relevant. She was sadly never able to see the widespread influence of the Zero Tolerance campaign before she passed away. In 1995, it was picked up nationally, with many local councils continuing to spread its message in their surrouding areas. However, despite her prolific output and influential activism across numerous photographic series, Raffles’ name is little known in comparison to her contemporaries like Chris Killip and Tish Murtha. This exhibition remedies that by shining a light on the powerful work of this change-making documentary photographer, who committed her practice to sharing insights into the lives of women whilst drawing attention to the issues that really matter.

Baltic, Franki Raffles: Photography, Activism, Campaign Works | Until 16 March 2025

Words: Diana Bestwish Tetteh

Image Credits:

  1. © Franki Raffles Estate, all rights reserved.