Amy Woodward’s intimate, subtly political images advocate for wider visibility and understanding of new motherhood

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Following the birth of her first child, Woodward felt an overwhelming sense of isolation that soon made a lasting impact on her work

Amy Woodward moved house frequently as a child. She was drawn to photography early on, finding a way of documenting her often-changing surroundings. Born in country Victoria, Australia, Woodward went on to study image-making at RMIT, Melbourne and graduated in 2016. A year later, when she was 27, she had her first child and saw her world turn upside down. Enduring postpartum depression and anxiety, she felt an overwhelming sense of isolation and invisibility that soon made a lasting impact on her work. 

“Photography became a way of trying to step outside of myself and visually interpret the pain, grief and loneliness I was experiencing,” she says. “But my story isn’t at all unique. So many mothers and parents can identify with this feeling – the world just suddenly feels so unwelcoming and threatening, and there’s this sense of being a burden in public spaces, with a screaming reflux baby that can’t be soothed and swollen, leaking breasts.”

“I knew I wasn’t coping with the changes,” she continues. “But now in hindsight I think, well how was I supposed to cope? My own mother was interstate, we live in a society that likes to keep motherhood and birth hidden as much as possible, I barely had any friends with babies at the time, and as far as I was concerned, absolutely everything posed a threat to this fragile being I had somehow been entrusted with. In terms of representation, I felt like all of that visceral intensity was missing from any of the art I had been consuming prior, and nothing in visual media had invited me in.”

Now based in Kabi Kabi/Gubbi Gubbi Country, aka the Sunshine Coast, Woodward makes work which aims to address the imbalance, capturing the messy, difficult, overwhelming, and beautiful experiences of young families and, especially, new mothers. She shoots commissioned portraits which sometimes morph into extended documentary projects, and she also makes personal work, including an ongoing project titled Milk Teeth which explores her journey into having a second child. Her photographs are intimate and yet subtly political, advocating for more visibility and understanding.

“There’s just so much to excavate and meditate on, so many facets, transitions and rites of passage for me to weave and explore, so much that’s still hidden and underrepresented”

Some of Woodward’s images show breastfeeding, and many of them show the nudity that goes hand in hand with life with young children. Because of this, they have quite literally been excluded from social media. “The way censorship of nude images is handled on these platforms is so deeply offensive and out of touch,” she says. “I’ve recoiled in shock more times than I can count at the language and reasoning used when I’ve been censored. I’ve had a photograph of breastmilk rolling down a stomach removed for sexual activity, and a photograph of my son sitting on my knee removed for adult sexual solicitation.”

Woodward describes the situation as “damaging and alienating for women and mothers” but says the experience has only made her more determined to represent women’s lives, and to also expand her remit. “I feel the experience of mothers, caregivers, women and those who identify as women will continue to take centre-stage for quite some time, maybe forever,” she says. “And I am already starting to look towards documenting the process of ageing, within myself and my own mother. There’s just so much to excavate and meditate on, so many facets, transitions and rites of passage for me to weave and explore, so much that’s still hidden and underrepresented.”

Diane Smyth

Diane Smyth is a freelance journalist who contributes to publications such as The Guardian, The Observer, The FT Weekend Magazine, Creative Review, The Calvert Journal, Aperture, FOAM, IMA, Aesthetica and Apollo Magazine. Prior to going freelance, she wrote and edited at BJP for 15 years. She has also curated exhibitions for institutions such as The Photographers Gallery and Lianzhou Foto Festival. You can follow her on instagram @dismy