Kate Finney talks to photographer Jenny Lewis about her epic five-year project celebrating mothers and their newborn babies.
“It’s really quite simple,” says photographer Jenny Lewis, “I wanted to tell a story about the strength and resilience of women post-childbirth that I feel goes largely unacknowledged in today’s world. To reassure women that childbirth is okay – yes there’s pain but it is a positive pain, one that has purpose and is just part of the journey.” Motivated by this desire to spread a positive message about birth, Jenny leafleted her home borough of Hackney to recruit her subjects, and over five years photographed 150 women within 24 hours of giving birth.
For an event so commonplace – there are more than 2,000 babies born in the UK every day – childbirth and its immediate aftermath is one that is rarely documented or made public. All too often these moments are left on a mobile phone, or are filed away in family albums. The book includes 40 portraits out of the total 150, and covers a complete range of ages, backgrounds and experiences, from home births to hospital births, from first-time mothers to mothers-of-four, from teenage mothers to those in their forties.
Jenny’s aim was for motherhood to be admired and appreciated after the incredible marathon of childbirth. What she didn’t expect was to find a strange calm, accompanied by an aura of heightened sensitivity at every house she visited.“It was overwhelming, every single time I was welcomed into their home at the most special moment,” remembers Jenny. “It’s had a massive impact on the way I think about my community and my perception of humanity.”
The generosity of her subjects stunned Jenny, as did the sense of slow-motion and peace that pervaded each house or flat that she visited. In her introduction to Jenny’s book, photography critic Lucy Davies suggests that the new mothers are “hovering at a magic and ambiguous crossing-point between before and after, and the impression this leaves on the way they look rinses bright through every image”. The images themselves are truly captivating. There is a rhythmic repetition to the pictures, and despite our interest in the surroundings of every home, and the look and identity of the women, each baby draws you in like a magnet.
“Most [of the mothers] only managed to pull their gaze away for a few seconds,” says Jenny. “They’re primitive animals at that point. That body language, to a photographer used to spending ages trying to make the subject feel relaxed, be themselves and to get rid of any worries about how they want to be portrayed, is fascinating. At this moment, like no other moment, they are so flooded with their self, but an egoless self – it’s beautiful.”
While the images are incredibly intimate, it never feels like we’re intruding. There is a sense of stillness and poise that radiates through the series of portraits, creating an overwhelming impression of serenity emanating from these new mothers. Jenny remarks that as the series developed over the course of the five-year project, this theme of silent-strength became impossible to ignore. “I find the collection defiant and beautiful, challenging the expected vision of those first 24 hours; a pure celebration of what it means to be a mother.”