In a new series, Sophie Harris-Taylor reveals the challenges and joys of breast-feeding for several women
Tears of milk weeping down an arm; enlarged nipples, swollen and sore; baby’s lips puckered and expectant. Sophie Harris-Taylor reveals breastfeeding in its many variations: the mess, the pain, the frustration, the joy. One mother expresses her nipples’ exhaustion — her tongue-tied newborn constantly sucking; never satisfied. Another, clutching a breast-pump to her dribbling chest, confesses the sense of inadequacy at being unable to breastfeed. These are the realities of a process presented as joyous — a moment of connection between mother and child. Of course, breastfeeding can be this, but, it can also be hideous — exhausting, painful, and lonely. “This stage of motherhood is an emotional roller-coaster,” says Harris-Taylor, who recently gave birth to a son. “I wanted to reveal some of that and explore the range of emotions in both mothers and their babies.”
Images and text compose her resulting series MILK: an honest depiction of breastfeeding via several women’s varying experiences of the process. Harris-Taylor’s own experiences motivated the work. “Before having my son, I, like many other women had an idealised but perhaps unrealistic expectation of breastfeeding,” she continues, “the images I had seen tended to represent breastfeeding in a generic and non-informative way.” Her work does the opposite. In it, different mother’s divulge their most private reflections on the process — to open up the conversation and show other women that they are not alone.
Below, several of the women Harris-Taylor photographed share their experiences.
“I am abundant. Free-flowing. All nourishing. Even when I don’t feel like magic, I am! Breastfeeding has shown me that”
“You can go to every lactation class, read every book, have super-long, teat-shaped, perfect nipples and it can still be bloody difficult. I imagined myself as some earth mama that would breastfeed her baby until six months and beyond. I’ll probably always feel guilty that I wasn’t able to do that.”
“The images of breastfeeding I have seen always show the baby lying peacefully in the mum’s arms, feeding away, serenely. Other mums in my antenatal group say their babies will feed for 45 minutes to an hour. Raya doesn’t feed like that. She always wants to be up and active and we often feed just a few sucks at a time here and there as she clambers over and around me — milk spraying over everything in the vicinity as she pulls away just as my milk lets down.”
“Nova had tongue-tie for the first eight weeks, which made breastfeeding very tedious for me. He would feed for very long periods and never seem satisfied afterwards. I was constantly questioning my ability and supply, as well as dealing with sore nipples, exhaustion and overall discomfort. I built a negative relationship with the whole thing that is hard to break even though things are better after his tongue tie surgery.”
“My image of breastfeeding before I had personally done it was one of oneness and serenity — something that would naturally unfold majestically, like a rose blooming in the comfort of its garden. Fast forward six months and multiple feeds since giving birth, I can truly say it is not so!”
“I think that women in the West encounter more difficulties breastfeeding because we do these things in isolation, rather than in a community. If breastfeeding wasn’t mostly done behind closed doors, we’d be more exposed to it and therefore more prepared. I don’t think society makes adequate public spaces for breastfeeding, either. I’ve had to pay for tea to sit in a cafe when Oki is hungry and we are out. Sometimes I think we are made to feel that breastfeeding is a public inconvenience rather than a natural necessity.”
Hannah Abel-Hirsch joined British Journal of Photography in 2017, where she is currently Assistant Editor. Previously, she was an Editorial Assistant at Magnum Photos, and a Studio Assistant for Susan Meiselas and Mary Ellen Mark in New York. Before which, she completed a BA in History of Art at University College London. Her words have also appeared on Magnum Photos, 1000 Words, and in the Royal Academy of Arts magazine.