Portrait photographer Jenny Lewis has been working on One Day Young for over four years, capturing women in the first 24hrs since the birth of their child, in their own homes. With International Women’s Day on the 8th of March, it seems like an opportune moment to share this ongoing series with you. I had the pleasure of catching up with Jenny over a coffee last week to find out why she decided to start this project.
What inspired you to start photographing women and their newborns on day 1?
It felt really important to me to create some positive stories about birth to dilute the negative messages and portraits are my tool for telling these stories. Having had two really good births, a water birth at UCL and a water birth at home I felt it was important to share this possible outcome… when it all goes well..no drama. I think for over ten months I was bracing myself for the most traumatic unmanageable ordeal and in fact that wasn’t the case at all. I hadn’t met anyone who said it would be OK, that birth could be empowering and joyful and that actually made me feel angry. My only knowledge was fear, people clamming up and giving worried looks, or really dry over medicalised, unemotional explanations from the hospital. With some positive stories in mind I would of been in a much more confident head space.
How do you think your photos capture the wealth of emotions and rawness following birth?
To capture these portraits in the first 24hrs is really important. That’s when the emotions are still primitive and overwhelming. The women are powerful, proud of what they have achieved, this is captured before reality seeps back in.
Do women approach you to take part in the project or do you seek out new candidates?
All the women are strangers not chosen on their age, class, race or looks but responding to leaflets i post around the borough. Later word of mouth and groups like Mothers Meeting , Momma Loves and The Hackney Homebirth Team have helped recruit more subjects.
Being a mother yourself and having gone through birth twice, does seeing these women on day one make you feel differently about how you felt in that early hormonal time?
Not really I felt pretty amazing, that crazy tectonic shift when you look at everything in the world a little differently …like you suddenly get it and have huge empathy for other women. A certain clarity before the haze of tiredness takes over.
What makes these brand new mothers so interesting to photograph?
Having been an editorial portrait photographer for years shooting celebrities and real life features , I am constantly trying to break down the barriers people put up, searching for a true portrait. With the One Day Young the honesty I’ve been searching for is there immediately. Unapologetic proud women who are not trying to be prettier, cooler, slimmer, more intelligent…a lack of awareness of the self they want to portray and just what they are feeling openly fresh on their faces. Its been such a great pleasure to shoot this series and I am extremely grateful for the generosity all these women. to let me come round and capture this rawness and intimate time.
Who was the most interesting woman to shoot?
Absolutely impossible to pull out one women against another. All the women are equal in my eyes, the stories I’ve heard have been incredible and give me goose bumps to think of. Women who lost their own mothers at an early age, lost a child, women who have struggled with IVF, women who are on their own, but at this moment its like all their life experiences are levelled.
What is the atmosphere in the room when you first meet the women and their babies?
The atmosphere is addictive, its crackling from the moment the front door is opened, sounds crazy but its like a tangible bubble of love you can almost taste it. I’m often the first person in the use once the midwife has left if its a home birth or the first if they have just got back from hospital so its an incredibly intimate time. I’ve never felt more welcomed into peoples homes and have a great affection for all the women I’ve met.
You have also done another project celebrating Modern Motherhood? Do you think there is a shift in the way women as mothers are being perceived in the media/society?
The Modern Motherhood exhibition was really looking at the women beyond the fact that they were mothers, their ability to be both a mother and carry on their own creative journey. One Day Young is a celebration of Women, at that transition that they become a mother… lets see how it goes down in the media I’m looking forward to hearing a critical response.
Where are you planning on showcasing these photos?
I am currently pitching for an exhibition but better not say where for now, but after that i would like to see the series in hospitals settings aswell as art galleries. To be used as a tool to increase positive thinking around birth. The view of birth is so medicalised, you may have views on this being a midwife, I think it can only be helpful to encourage the media to see women at home in their normal environment. To understand the shape of the mother straight after birth the puffiness and redness of the baby. I know my daughter who is 7 has a positive view of birth from seeing this series as i’ve been working on it for the last four years. She is fully aware of a woman’s body shape after having a baby, That labour is difficult but not unmanageable pain and certainly not something to fear. The stories she hears of birth are ones of joy and great courage rather than whispers of screaming and terror so she will have this understanding in her when she grows up. I am obviously aware that there are complications with birth but that doesn’t mean that the positive stories shouldn’t be shared to help educate and empower other women.
How do you hope these pictures help other expectant women out there about I embark on this journey into motherhood?
Like i said before the series is like a mantra that its going to be OK. The message is the same in every image so by the repetition it gets stronger and is impossible to ignore. You would easily be able to find someone in the series that relates to you whether that be age, physical build…and that gives you the encouragement that if they can do it so can I. If nothing else there is a great selection of baby names to look through.