Sunday, 4 November 2012

Helen Brook poster - Shape and Situate

I developed this poster about Helen Brook for the latest issue of the wonderful zine Shape and Situate: Posters of Inspirational European Women. If you're not sure who Helen Brook is, I'm not surprised as there is a complete dearth of information about her on the internet. This is despite being one of the founders of sexual health services for young people in the UK. The main young people's clinic still in existence is even named after her. 

It's not just the lack of information, there is some serious misinformation available about her. The one short obituary I could find characterized her as being against 'promiscuity' (whatever that means) and abortion. Despite my positive experience working for the organisation Brook and some archival material they were able to provide me with, it was almost enough to put me off representing her for this project.
I managed to hold my judgment and arranged with the British Library to listen to a six hour long oral history about her life and work (only available on cassette!). The view that obituary had so crudely simplified as anti-abortion was actually very complex and based on decades of work with women in the field of sexual health. 

She talked with real passion about how as a mother, she understood what a physically and emotionally unpleasant experience early pregnancy was and how she hated to think of any woman having to go through that when she didn't want to have a child. She saw pregnancy and abortion as physically traumatic for women and despaired that after all this time, there are still barriers that prevent women and young people accessing and using contraception.
She and pretty much all the other women who worked in this field were very well off and did much of the work as volunteers. I was struck by how much effort she made to truly understand the situation of the women who came to her for help. When she first started, every woman was told to put one foot up on the bathtub to insert her diaphragm half an hour before her husband came home from work for a romantic dinner. 

When she actually visited one of her clients at home, she was confronted with the fact that only the wealthy had their own bathrooms at that time. The poor and working class women she was advising had to share outdoor toilets, used public baths weekly at the most and rarely had any privacy. The standard advice was completely irrelevant so she changed it. She also didn't accept the idea that this work should be done on a voluntary basis and paid all the staff when she opened her own clinic (although she never paid herself). 

But even after listening to all of those hours of her story in her own words, there was a part of me that didn't think that was good enough. But isn't this exactly how they get you; making you view women's voices, oral histories and community narratives as unreliable and requiring further verification? I managed to remind myself that this impulse was stupid before wasting any time dredging up more articles that would inevitably misrepresent her. 

Although I had some photos of Helen as a younger women, I think we need way more positive portrayals of older women. Plus I was struck by how much the no-bullshit character I heard in her interview shines through in this photo (the wild hair and the unguarded, wrinkle-enhancing smile). 
As a final mark of respect for Helen's own account of her life, I also decided to represent her as a painter (although she was in no way famous for her art). Despite all the accomplishments she is recognised for, she identified the two years she spent studying painting in Paris with her infant daughter after leaving her first husband as the best of her life. She also talked about how hard it was when she started to lose her eyesight in later life because she had to give up her real passion. 

And you know, a woman who worked on increasing young people's rights in her day job and made art the rest of the time struck a pretty obvious chord with me.

1 comment:

Amelia Woods said...


I work for Brook as their fundraising manager. This is a beautiful piece and an inspiring poster!

Next year is Brook's 50th birthday, we want to share some of our history, including a celebration of Helen. Would you be happy for us to reproduce this blog piece, cite you as author/designer and link to it from our website -

If this is of interest, please get in touch: