PORTFOLIO SESSION

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'.

What was the journey you took to becoming the artist you are today ?
Well I am from Essex originally but I did a fine art painting degree at Preston. I was never taught photography really but I kept sloping off to the dark room because that was something I was really interested in. For my painting degree show I actually ended up doing a photographic installation. Preston was great because I had a big studio space and I was completely drawn into that romantic idea of painting everyday for three years, which I actually ended up doing.
That’s really interesting because looking at your One Day Young portraits they do have a very painterly quality about them.
I know, it’s funny isn’t it. I suppose that’s always my priority when taking a picture, it is the quality of the light I care about the most. I don’t know whether it comes from studying art or not. I nearly studied art history instead of painting actually. I can remember being seventeen and being so excited looking at all those Old Masters, the Vermeer paintings, the Caravaggio’s, I was so excited by all that language, shaft of light catching the side of a face or some drapes.

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.

Some of your One Day Young portraits bring to mind that amazing Tom Hunter image, Woman with an eviction notice, he similarly referenced old master paintings.
I love that image so much although I wasn’t consciously referencing that image or trying to recreate it. I wonder if these things sink into your aesthetic psyche and you draw on them. I wonder whether there is a connection when you see that familiarity, the image feels right … so you click and you know you’ve got the shot. When subconsciously it feels right because you have seen and responded to a similar image before, your brain has filed this image in the likes folder.
What was your initial inspiration behind the One Day Young project ?
My main reason for starting the project was a lack of positive imagery of women showing the transition into motherhood. I just couldn’t understand why this huge moment wasn’t celebrated in our visual language. Nothing so huge had ever happened to me, so I started to question why I had never seen it and get angry and annoyed that this moment was invisible in our modern language. I mean maybe it has traditionally been referenced with the Madonna And Child in Art but that was more about religion than the Mother.

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 ?

I read that a friend of yours gave you a book about an American midwife and that kind of spurred you on to feel more positive about childbirth.
Yes the midwife is called Ina May and she told a series of birth stories written from the women's positive recollections and memories of their experience. That was the first positive message that I could relate to. Because nothing in the hospital made me feel reassured, nothing my family or friends said reassured me either.

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.

There is certainly that feeling of enormous pride, a joyfulness and a protectiveness in these women and one of the things that struck me about them is their lack of self consciousness. Like all their ‘layers’ have been removed somehow.
Exactly because I don’t think those ‘layers’ are there in these women just after childbirth. That is what I found so fascinating, as a photographer it is the epitome of what we are always trying to achieve, to break down that layer. I don’t think you usually get that purity, but with these women those layers were not present so the portraits are incredibly raw.

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.

I think only life and death brings out those raw moments in a person, when glimpses of a person’s true self can be seen, with all those layers removed.
Yes you can feel it can’t you ? All the baggage of whoever you want to be, whatever you want to project to the world just goes out the window in those moments. Whether it is someone you deeply care about who has just died or someone has just given birth.

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.

Not many photographers get that close to documenting such an intimate moment. Can you describe a typical portrait session with a new mum at this time. Even logistically it must have been quite difficult to plan ?
Oh it was so exciting ! It was so different from an editorial or commercial shoot with art directors and assistants and so on where everyone would know exactly what was going on. With this I had absolutely no idea who I’d be shooting, I would just shove my camera in my bike basket and cycle there and think ‘Who is going to be behind this door ?’. I didn’t know any of them. I didn’t meet any of them beforehand, I didn’t see any pictures, literally I was turning up blind. They saw the leaflets I had put around so they would just email me their name, their due date and address and I would put them on a little post it note on my wall.

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.

So you were quite strict with the 24 hour rule then ?
I had to stick to it. At the beginning I did shoot people two or three days in but it just wasn’t the same, it just didn’t work for the series. There is something quite magical about what is going on during that 24 hours. You are sort of having an out of body experience. You are so proud, its just like you are bigger than yourself. The inside core of you just spills out but then after that first 24 hours reality starts creeping back in, because you don’t want to show off too much and you start kind of calming it down.

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.

You earlier referenced the images as capturing women who have 'triumphed in a battlefield' which is brilliant as rarely have we seen childbirth and motherhood being celebrated in that way. The hero is the mother and the achievement is life rather than the more typical battlefield themes of war and death.
Yes the moment of achievement captured is so often war or a sportsman. Really is childbirth not more important to capture ? This is more of a physical and mental battle with yourself, to suppress the pain, to get to grips with it and get control it, and you are on your own, really it is only the individual doing the work, there is no football team there is no company behind you.

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.

For me your work sits easily alongside Dutch photographer Rineke Dijkstra's shots of women who have just given birth. She also elevates the women who have just gone through childbirth, although in quite a different way.
I mean that would be incredible if that was the case. The curators and the people of power in that domain are often men and I have found a real struggle there. There have been sixty articles worldwide about my work in a few months and I think only two have been written by men. So I think if the curators and the distributors are men then I will have a struggle for the series to become visible.

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.

In our visual culture and men's magazines particularly the male gaze is everywhere. But one of the things that is so engaging about your pictures are these women gazing right back at you in a very confident non confrontational way.
Yes absolutely. It's unapologetic, it’s 'look at me, I’m not looking down'. There is a defiance, 'look at what I have done, don’t ignore me I’m here'. I didn’t instruct anyone how to pose or how to look, they are just doing it for themselves. That is just how they feel. It is very interesting. They have this amazing confidence.

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.

I look at your pictures and I feel reassured and think that’s how I want to feel if I have children. When I look at One Born Every Minute I am usually horrified, even though at the end there is a massive celebration, the majority of it focuses on the painfulness of labour.
That programme has a lot to answer for really hasn’t it, though I have to admit I have never watched it. It's not everyone’s experience of childbirth, it is just what they choose to show. They are never going to choose someone who has a very easy birth, it’s not good TV is it !. But then you could say the same with me. My project just shows one side as well. I’m not showing the caesarean because the Mother would have been in hospital for three days (though one did discharge herself and is in the book) or twins as they would have been in for a week and I am not showing someone who had a really complicated labour as they would not be home in the 24 hours. So again it is a prejudiced view not the whole picture. But it is a view that has not really been seen.

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 ?

You took 150 portraits in the series. How on earth did you edit it down to 40 for the book ?
I worked with a brilliant book designer, Stefi Orazi and we worked together to edit it down. I wanted the book to be affordable and a really massive book would have cost too much to buy. As much as I think this topic is high art and these women should be celebrated in a gallery context, I also want the work to be accessible, anyone should be able to have it and I didn’t want it to be out of reach. So although it is in the Tate bookshop, and The Photographer’s Gallery it is also in Waterstones and Foyle’s and I am talking to Mothercare. Young girls should be able to see it, as an education and a reassurance. That edit was very hard though. Stefi was a bit more detached from it which was good in a lot of ways. Some women had similar backgrounds so we would cut those down. But some of the images I was just too emotionally attached to, so I couldn’t let them go.

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.

You have been on an amazing journey with these women. What have you learnt about yourself along the way ?
I learnt a lot from all those women about confidence and about being yourself and being honest with yourself. It has levelled me out as a photographer and made me grow up in a way.
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

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They Made This