When I ask Jenny Lewis to recount her experiences of photographing her most recent project, One Day Young Malawi, I brace myself.
Malawi is officially the poorest nation in the world. According to the World Health Organisation, Malawi has the highest fertility rate in the world, with the average woman raising 5.7 children, and “a critical shortage of capacity in institutions implementing development programmes.”
Lewis travelled there – in an extension of her viral One Day Young project – to capture the most intimate moments of a mother and newborn arriving home in the first twenty-four hours after birth. The odds on this tale being anything other than bleak seem slim.
“I was next to the delivery room when Efrida was giving birth” Lewis tells BJP of one of the first new mothers she photographed.
“Twenty minutes later, they needed the delivery room, so they shoved her out and put her in the room I was in, where I was taking a picture of Miriam, who was bleeding very heavily at the time.
“So Efrida was bleeding all over the floor while mum was holding the baby. Then she started to throw up. Both new mothers are in a room that’s filthy, but who is going to go and collect clean water and clean it for the floor? Clean water is a really precious commodity out there.”
Lewis is talking about the Simulemba health centre in Malawi. Despite having barely any access to clean water – the centre shares a single pump with a local community of more than 2,000 people – Simulemba attempts to deliver healthcare for more 70,000 people, delivering 90 children every month.
By law, expectant mothers have to give birth in health centres or face heavy fines, yet these centres offer absolutely no safety. No running water, and precious access to clean water. No simple way of washing floors, crumbling bathrooms, and two broken beds on which women are expected to give birth.
And yet, in the face of such adversity, Lewis’ stirringly beautiful portraits depict warm glowing smiles, fierce stances of joy and pride, strength, resilience and euphoria, which exude exponentially from every woman, in every frame.
These women are triumphant, their love conquering the harsh realities of this new chapter in their lives, which they are only just beginning to face.
This is what Lewis’ work is all about; providing a space to celebrate the newfound strength and joy of motherhood.
The Malawi project is a direct extension into her five year exploration of her established series One Day Young, a collection of touching and poignant portraits, of Hackney mothers and their newborns at home, in the first twenty-four hours of birth.
Her considered portraits are relatable and raw. Each is a story of womenhood, no matter what their background, or what struggles they face. The series was inspired, she says, by the negative stereotypes associated with giving birth.
“The whole point in doing the original project was frustration with there being a lack of supportive messages around birth” she says.
“I feel like I approached birth where I was terrified and scared and all I heard was negativity. I had two kids and both times I was completely fine, I felt stronger and more empowered and more proud of myself than I ever have done before.”
Lewis draws on the pure essence of humanity, the creation of new life, which she sees as under representative in art and photography worlds.
“It is a subject that has universal appeal, it has a life of it’s own, ebbing away and making waves,” Lewis says. “Just because it’s normal; doesn’t mean it’s not interesting, celebrating the normal is fantastic.”
Her photographs are a testament to the power of the image. Traversing cultural and political boundaries, she has brought awareness and empowerment to the Malawian women, in turn allowing them to empower other women across the globe through their portraits.
Lewis makes her women relatable, refusing to adhere to the media’s ease of portraying African women as victims you feel sorry for, instead championing them as fully-formed people, more than worthy of our respect.
“Why shouldn’t they have the same choices as us?” she asks. “These women share the same triumphant moment as the women in Hackney, they are just under a lot more threat and a lot more risk, but if this water comes in to the health center, they’ve got a lot better chance.”
The series was made in collaboration with WaterAid, which solely campaigns for clean water and sanitation in developing countries.
“I’ve always thought I wanted to take this project further, but not just for the sake of it,” Lewis says. “I had the opportunity to do the project exactly how I wanted.”
In an industry where many Western photographers seem unfazed to bulldoze through cultural and political minefields to get the perfect shot, she was more hesitant to jump into an unknown environment without guidance.
“I feel really privileged to be able to have captured these women’s stories, and I feel a huge responsibility to protect them and their stories, and to get them heard,” says Lewis. “To see the strategies they have to have in place to do anything was a great learning experience, it is vastly complicated and I’m surprised how anything ever gets done, and for that, I have huge respect for them.”
WaterAid’s Deliver Life appeal aims to reach 130,000 mothers and their families around the world with safe water. Every £1 donated to the appeal until 10th February will be doubled by the UK Government.
For further information, and to donate, go here.