There are so many things I want to say about photographer Jenny Lewis and her exceptional One Day Young series, that I don't know where to begin. Five years in the making, Jenny quietly captures the stories of women at the very beginnings of motherhood, creating poignant portraits of their transition into motherhood, a visual representation that has been curiously invisible in our visual culture.
Far removed from the One Born Every Minute culture of dramatising the pain of labour, this series celebrates the strength and resilience of women post labour. Photographed in their own homes and shot within a strict twenty four hour period after the birth of their babies, Jenny reveals an intimacy we the viewer would never have access to. Barely able to take their eyes off their hours old babies, when the new Mothers do look at the viewer it is with an overwhelming combination of pride, love and protectiveness.
I had the enormous pleasure of meeting Jenny recently and the below interview is the result of a very enjoyable hour chatting about this project. A pure celebration of what it means to be a mother, Jenny dedicates the project to her own children, Ruby and Herb, who 'started me on this journey'.
I look at some of my pictures and I think maybe I have created a modern version of that. All those symbols of the new Mother’s lives in the background, a collection of clues to be deciphered. You can look around and piece together their lives through what they have chosen to put on the walls. You can tell their influences, lifestyle, what music they might be listening to, there are so many secret symbols, similar to the way you would read a painting.
I wanted to make these images about the triumphant Mother. The woman that has come out of this battle, she has just won and she has done it by herself. I felt that story needed to be told visually. And I wanted to share that with other women to make them feel supported. Why just give women fear, what is the point of that ?
So when my own births were positive it was partly because I really drew on those birth stories, I just kept these women’s stories in my head, and thankfully had two positive experiences of birth. I had never felt so strong, I had never felt more powerful and proud of myself.
I would walk into their homes and because of this pride, this egoless pride, there was nothing to strip away, they were being totally themselves. They were just like ‘Shit look at me, I’ve done this “ so there they are natural and transparent, and just them.
It's nothing I brought out in them photographically, that is what they were projecting at that time, and in a away you never really see that. It’s very rare to see people really and truly 100% themselves, their true selves. It’s such an intimate private moment. Its not often shared in the public domain and that is why this project is touching people. You can’t help but be drawn in by that kind of honesty.
You see it on the Dad’s faces as well, it's very interesting, it wasn’t for this particular project as I was focusing on the Mothers, but I could see it in that room, they are looking at this women in a new light, everything they had ever thought about her was just pushed to the side and this new found respect they had was beautiful. They are absolutely bewildered and in wonderment of the moment. They had no idea what they were about to witness and they don’t have the hormones to carry themselves through it which is why they are in utter disbelief and shock, but love as well of course. That combination of all those huge emotions, it is such a privilege to witness and document that…. it makes you feel very human.
Then a week before their due date I would check in to see if they were still up for it. As I didn’t know anything about them often I would get it completely wrong too, like I’d think this women must be Asian with this name and it would be a German architect. It was just brilliant, I didn’t even ask their ages, I didn’t know if it was going to be a 17 year old teenage mum in her parent’s house or a 45 year old art director.
I would just get a text saying ‘I just had my baby an hour ago’, so if they were at home I went straight there and if they were still in the hospital I would ask them to let me know when they got the sign off from the doctor, which did get a bit nerve racking as if they went over 24 hours I wouldn’t shoot them.
When I first started I didn’t want to let people down so I would shoot them in the second or third day. But it became really apparent that this intimate moment had passed. I did make sure I was very clear about that going from the start. I didn't want them to be disappointed or put any extra pressure on themselves trying to race home from hospital , though a few did to be included in the series.
It’s just this woman managing the challenge and getting through it, the labour may have gone on for three days by the time I arrive. I felt like these women should be put on a pedestal and cheered and celebrated as much as men in war, the physicality of their struggle and victory.. The history of images and portraiture always celebrates the medals, the uniform, the war hero, the bullfighter, the man. I was clear I wanted to celebrate the normal woman, this everyday transition of women into motherhood which is largely overlooked. Women’s triumphs over childbirth has got to be one of the biggest and most primitive moments to celebrate. Its weird its ignored.
And now that the project is in an editorial frame it has gone crazy on the internet. There is a lot of sharing through Instagram and Facebook, and sharing can be quite a female tool so now that it has been accepted and people are really interested in this subject I’d like to see it in an art gallery. I feel like the topic of childbirth needs to have that kind of status to be elevated from just domestic interest and be seen in an art gallery.
I thought the hard thing would be getting this into a book and now I’m like ‘Ah there is another battle‘ the next step is to have One Day Young in a gallery context. I have had some fairly sexist conversations with some respected art critics recently at a portfolio reviews. Like somehow the images are not considered ‘serious’ enough to be considered high art. It is important to get these things out there and important for the series to be seen in lots of places it is not used to be seen, men’s magazines, for different representations of a woman to appear in the media.
And to go back to Rineke’s work, as much as I love her photos, they are not very reassuring for women. The women look bewildered, the environment is really sterile, it’s all about white tiles and surgical instruments and blood dripping down their legs, so as much as I have always loved that work she had quite a different agenda.
I do think it would be really interesting to see those images together because the women are in such different environments. I didn’t want to shoot the women in hospitals because I thought the backdrop of an institutionalised environment spoke nothing of the women, of who they were. It just displaced them and made them look vulnerable.
I felt it was incredibly important to show them with their identity still in tact and not stripped away. So they were the ones in control, on home turf and I was the stranger invited in. They could choose their clothes, their background was already set designed by the lives they had previously led. They hadn’t disappeared because of the birth, they are still very much themselves and for me that was really important.
It’s fascinating how TV programs like that alter your perception on how things should be. They have so much power haven’t they ?. So it’s good to have an alternative story ‘I have another voice, there is another way of looking at this’ and to be honest what scenario would women rather believe ?
There was a women who had lost a baby in childbirth the year before and her stoic strength was phenomenal. She told me she had to crush the fear and grief with every contraction because the year before her child died just before she gave birth to him. She was telling me this holding her four hour old baby and I knew in any other situation that women would not have told that story to a stranger.
But in that moment it was cathartic and she just had to explain her journey which was phenomenal and I came away from that session in tears. How can anyone be that strong ? These are just normal people living next to you, there is nothing different about them. But regular women are amazing. It was my commitment to them and a responsibility to show their story that made me put in that many years and that much time.
That project has lead on to my new Hackney Studios series. I had been investing so much time into the domestic scene and been so warmly invited into complete stranger’s homes at that really vulnerable and important time, I started to wonder what was going on in the work areas, what goes on behind closed doors with all these other people, with all these creatives. So it led on to that project and I started to investigate that in the same way, a celebration of creative people.
And the way that I am shooting is similar, just arriving with my camera and my bike. I have learned a new simplicity to the way I work, I don’t need a big crew. And that simplicity is really unthreatening. So I have definitely stripped back, not just in my personal work but commercially as well. And this approach suits me much better. And the people I am shooting are so much more relaxed too I think.
It’s definitely been a two way journey working through that project and gaining confidence in my own photographic practice and in myself. I always believed in the project early on, people would ask ‘Do you really need to take another portrait ?’ but I believe in my instinct a lot more now because I knew I had to keep going and I knew the project was getting stronger and I also knew when I had enough.
So that trust in my own intuition has grown and as soon as I shot that last girl something clicked and I knew that was it. The range and the diversity was there and I was the only one who knew when to stop. I realised my voice is worth listening to and maybe I didn’t have that trust in myself before.
One Day Young by Jenny Lewis is published by Hoxton Mini Press, available from www.hoxtonminipress.com