You don’t have to look far to find cultural representations of motherhood. The Virgin Mary, with downcast eyes; Heat-era celebrities flaunting impossibly flat, post-baby stomachs. And yet these images all tend to show a particular take: evasive, sanitised, as though to distract from the unseen horror of labour.
“Everyone seems to have this fear and anxiety about the birth,” says Jenny Lewis, whose project on new mothers, One Day Young, has just been published by Hoxton Mini Press. The book consists of 40 portraits, selected from 150, of Hackney-based mothers in their homes, within 24 hours of the birth. “After my son was born, I felt this responsibility to tell people I met who were pregnant that it’s going to be OK.” She decided a portrait series could do that job for her.[bjp_ad_slot]
“I put leaflets up in hairdressers, chip shops, corner shops, trying to get a varied demographic of people,” she recalls. The leaflets included a link to her website and as soon as she’d shoot a portrait, she’d publish it online so potential subjects could get a sense of what her work was about. “When they were looking and deciding if they wanted to do it, it was already empowering them. They’d be emailing back going, ‘My God they look amazing. Is it really like that?’”
All Lewis knew of each woman was a name, address and due date. For the next five years she was on call, ready to jump on her bike when she got word from the mothers, so the decision to limit the project to her home borough was practical: with young children and work commitments, it wasn’t feasible to travel further.
That spontaneity was a change from her day job as an editorial photographer for clients such as The Telegraph and The Financial Times. “With editorial, you’ve done so much research. You know what the actor looks like, you know what film they’ve just done, you know what the location is. This was completely blind.”
Another difference: she was operating solo, with minimal kit – just her Canon 5D and a tripod in winter, when long exposures were necessary. “I couldn’t take lots of equipment and clatter about. Lights and a bright flash would be the wrong atmosphere. It was such a privilege that these strangers let me in their house. I had to be really efficient, in and out in no more than an hour.”
The process was collaborative, with Lewis encouraging mothers to suggest spots in the house where they would feel at ease. “It was them curating their own identity. I could have done the series in hospitals [but] in your own home you become yourself again. It’s also a comment on motherhood: you’re not losing your identity, you’re still in control.”
In the edit, she found herself most drawn to those portraits with direct eye contact. “I didn’t want them to look coy, I wanted them to look fierce and powerful and triumphant. I was thinking of those paintings of commanders in a war.”
Lewis now hopes to take One Day Young abroad. How does the British post-natal experience compare to Brazil, where 80-90% of births are done by caesarean, she wonders, or France, where mothers stay an average of 4.2 days in hospital? Wherever the project leads next, Lewis has felt its impact – professionally, and personally.
“I’ve become more open, less guarded. I approach my editorial work in a different way,” she says. “Rather than it all being about the photo, it’s all about the person.”