A portrait of motherhood

Graduating from Middlesex University just this year, portrait photographer Sophie Morris has already been featured in numerous exhibitions including, D&AD: New Blood. Many of her projects centre on the theme of motherhood, with Morris using photography to question the idealistic expectations placed on mothers today.
Morris’s selected photograph for Portrait of Britain 2017 depicts Aida and her son Xavier. The image is part of her series Madonna and Child I, which presents the unique and often difficult stories of mothers through portraiture. Featuring a whole range of women, the project captures the many ways in which one can be a mother and the diversity of mother-child relationships.
Morris’ portrait was on view across the UK as part of BJP’s Portrait of Britain 2017, in partnership with JCDecaux and Nikon.

How did you create your selected portrait (above) and what is the story behind it?

This portrait is from my series Madonna & Child, a project I began in 2016, in the final year of my photography degree. The portraits are a response to the often stereotypical and idealistic views of motherhood we are sold. In reality, the experience of motherhood is different for each individual and I wanted to express this through my images.
The mothers I photographed all have unique stories. Some are mothers of children with learning difficulties or disabilities, others have illnesses, some have lost children or are part of a same-sex couple. I wanted to capture the diversity of mother-child relationships and draw attention to the courage of these women and their maternal passion.
Each mother was photographed in the same way, on the same chair in a stripped down surrounding, using only natural light. The portrait Aida & Xavier was one of the first photographs for this project that I took. While most of the mothers I shot were strangers who came to me with their story, Aida and Xavier are family. I asked to photograph them with a view to create an image that would subvert the traditional Madonna and child pose.

Zaenab © Sophie Morris
Do you have any advice for future entrants about selecting a portrait to submit and, more generally, about getting into portrait photography to begin with?
One can think about the selection process too much. I found choosing an image from the project very difficult because I have a special connection to each individual.
This is where I think the help of others is useful. This particular portrait was very popular in the exhibitions I put together for my degree shows and throughout the project consistently received the most attention. Images attract people for different reasons and sometimes a fresh set of eyes are a reassurance that you’re making the right choice.
When I first started photography I wasn’t particularly drawn to portraiture but I have come to love it. It’s not unusual to be nervous when you begin taking portraits, but I would advise just persevering: the more you take them, the more your confidence will grow.
What do you think makes for a compelling portrait?
I believe a compelling portrait comes down to the level of engagement between photographer and subject. If this  is strong then it will immediately draw in the viewer. As people, I think we look for context and try to relate to an image. A portrait that captures emotion and honesty is instantly more relatable and it’s those qualities that resonate with people the most.
Can you tell us about any particularly memorable experiences you’ve had whilst shooting portraits?
Some of the mother’s stories were very painful. I photographed a handful of women who had lost children, most of whom had other children too. I also shot a few mothers with their rainbow babies, a term that is used to describe a baby born following a miscarriage, stillbirth, or neonatal death.
I organised a shoot with a woman called Rachael, who had lost her son. Rachael also has a daughter, who I presumed was coming with, but she turned up alone, bringing only a memory box she had made for her son. The emotionality of the moment was intense and I was overwhelmed with the courage and strength of the woman before me. It is something I will always remember.
© Sophie Morris
What do you think about the Portrait of Britain project?
I think that Portrait of Britain is a fantastic way to showcase a variety of work to the public. The aim of my project was to share the stories of these women in order to show other mothers that they are not alone. Being part of Portrait of Britain has brought my work to a much wider audience.
Being a recent graduate and having my work displayed amongst other photographers, some of whom have inspired me throughout my studies, is an amazing opportunity. Portrait of Britain is open to anyone and the diversity of the portraits included reflect that.
© Sophie Morris
Portrait of Britain will be on view around the UK across a network of digital JCDecaux screens this September. Limited-edition prints of the featured portraits are available here and to own a selection in print, purchase the special Portrait of Britain edition of the magazine here.
If you missed the chance to enter this year’s Portrait of Britain, make sure to submit to the International Photography Awards 2018 here.
© Sophie Morris
Portrait of Britain is made possible through partnership with JCDecaux and Nikon. Please click here for more information on sponsored content funding at British Journal of Photography. Logo © Nikon