Eye Mama: a space for photography mothers to share their lockdown experience

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This article is printed in the latest issue of British Journal of Photography magazine, themed Home, delivered direct to you with an 1854 Subscription, or available to purchase on the BJP shop

Launched at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, the Instagram platform is a collection of images that illustrates the complexities – and the everyday realities – of motherhood during unprecedented times

After giving birth to my daughter in 2019, I had to imagine myself anew. The complex terrain of motherhood reconfigured the landscape of my mind, and my world, in ways that nothing could have prepared me for. I discovered an isolation so potent that it could go unseen by close friends and loved ones. In the west, we are encouraged to package up motherhood neatly. Keep quiet about the challenges, lack of support and mental health impacts. Even the positive aspects of parenting are unwanted conversation topics. It turns out in our culture, it’s not ‘cool’ to like being with your kid. As mothers, we are expected to embrace our struggle and simply keep being who we were. In essence, we abandon ourselves.

It isn’t easy to talk about, especially with non-parents, as the experience exists outside language. Our vocabulary is not large or sensitive enough to encapsulate the contradictory motherhood experience. This language barrier is compounded by the reality that the role of parenting continues to go unseen in our society. It’s a side-project – something to fulfil in the background and not recognised as serious work. In truth, the invisible labour of motherhood is so all-encompassing that you still do it, even when your children are elsewhere. 

© Polly Alderton / @polly_alderton

“Juggling my kids, work and homeschooling was chaos. It was a constant state of fight or flight. There’s no support system for working mothers, and I felt like I had a split personality juggling my work life, which was under threat, while also supporting my children and being the backup person for all my family’s needs. There were many tears until I reached a point of reckoning.”

Karni Arieli

© Bri McDaniels / @moonandcheeze

The Covid-19 pandemic had a cataclysmic effect on mothers. The system was already stacked against us, but the lockdown laid bare inequalities with brutal force. Millions of working mothers lost their jobs. Many were forced into an impossible juggle of homeschooling and working from home. Unpartnered mothers with three jobs and no childcare struggled to pay for necessities like housing, food and utilities. Even mothers with older, more independent children had to shoulder the psychological burden of the pandemic, while trying to retain some stability in the family unit. For many, the already overloaded responsibilities of motherhood reached breaking point. Tragically mothers had no choice but to get back up and do it all again tomorrow. 

“It was this perfect storm,” Karni Arieli tells me. “Juggling my kids, work and homeschooling was chaos. It was a constant state of fight or flight. There’s no support system for working mothers, and I felt like I had a split personality juggling my work life, which was under threat, while also supporting my children and being the backup person for all my family’s needs. There were many tears until I reached a point of reckoning.” The photographer and Bafta-nominated film-maker found solace in photographing her family, enabling her to support her children and hold onto her creativity. As she watched other mothers do the same, Arieli created the Eye Mama project, an Instagram account where artists and photographers, who are also mothers, could share images of their lives during the pandemic. 

© Tori Ferenc / @toriferenc
© Fusa / @whatalife_fusa

In just nine months, the account expanded from work by Arieli and her circle of friends to 20,000 submissions taken by mothers from over 30 countries, and counting. The platform became a stage for intimate entanglements with strangers – a portrait of motherhood during an unprecedented period of history. The images, shot by photographers including Ying Ang, Bri McDaniel, Kate Peters, Anh Wisle, Siân Davey, and Rose Marie Cromwell span the gamut of play to exhaustion. Tender, direct and honest – their gesture of vulnerability converges many forms of joy and struggle.

“On one hand, the walls seem to be closing in on you,” says Arieli. “There’s this underlying current of fear and menace. On the other hand, everything’s illuminated. All the little moments of beauty, connection and humour shine through. I think you get your power back by documenting this tension. And in sharing images, you feel reassured that we’re all going through very similar things.” Arieli describes the project as, “the emotional landscape taking place in people’s homes”. In many ways, it’s the desire to be accountable to the everyday that makes Eye Mama so captivating. As mothers, most of our intense struggles and joys occur in the ordinary – this is where the constitution of parenting takes place.

© Ying Ang / @yingang

“It was important to me that this project not be reduced to one vision. There are many, many visions through many eyes, in many homes. Previously, when I saw images of motherhood in culture, they’re always too white, too clean, too perfect or too kooky. There was nothing poetic yet realistic that made me feel seen and part of something.”   

Surprisingly, the recurring presence of mirror selfies that punctuate the collection are some of the most disarming images. Bodies are draped over bodies as each mother returns the viewer’s gaze with a quiet intensity. At first, they read ordinary. Humble. Familiar. Yet en masse, they feel more like an act of visibility – a proof of existence. For the photographers, but also for the community. They are grounding amid the chaos, silently communicating a shared history.

“It was important to me that this project not be reduced to one vision,” says Arieli. “There are many, many visions through many eyes, in many homes. Previously, when I saw images of motherhood in culture, they’re always too white, too clean, too perfect or too kooky. There was nothing poetic yet realistic that made me feel seen and part of something. In creating this platform, I really found my tribe. Something I didn’t even realise I was missing.”   

Janne Amalie Svit / @jannesvit
© Selma Fernandez Richter / @ selmafernandezrichter

Beyond visibility, the feelings that Eye Mama evoke for its contributors and viewers generate a social impact. A community has assembled itself through the simple gesture of making and sharing images. This is a brave act in itself, and has not been without challenges, with Instagram threatening and momentarily deleting the platform earlier this year.

The images situate our narrative within the world while recognising the persistent struggle amid the ever-changing conditions of pandemic parenting. Eye Mama is a space to hold each other, share what is sacred between us and remind us to be witnesses to each other. While perhaps the most interesting and profound things that motherhood offer will never be captured by the camera, the practice of image-making as catharsis, connection, comfort and community gives us an entry point to talk about impossible things. 

For more on EyeMama, you can head to the website or Instagram

Gem Fletcher

Creative director, writer, podcaster and photo director, Gem Fletcher works across visual-cultural fields, focusing on emerging talent in contemporary photography and art. She is the photo director of Riposte Magazine, and hosts a photography podcast, The Messy Truth.