Childbirth narratives often depict it in one of two ways: an unlikely report of magically forgotten pain or a white knuckled account of a string of traumas. Jenny Lewis, a London-based photographer, had heard mostly horror stories about childbirth, so when she delivered her first child, she was prepared for the worst.
But to her surprise, it really wasn’t so bad. She was home within six hours. She thought she’d gotten lucky. Then she delivered her second child, at home this time. And again, it was completely manageable. She couldn’t understand how there was not a positive, empowering story of childbirth being told.
“I was absolutely brimming with pride,” she says. “It’s wonderful to pat yourself on the back and go, ‘Oh my God, that was really really hard, but I did it.’ And then to hold the triumph of the battle in your hands. Wow, here we go, this is a new journey.” She found herself walking up to pregnant women in her Hackney neighborhood, telling them not to worry. “I would see them and wonder if anyone had told them. I’d wonder if they only had a negative story in their head and could really do with another story for their subconscious to pull on at a time when they need it.”
So she decided to tell this story the best way she knew how: through images. She posted flyers around town offering a free portrait to brand new moms. The one requirement was that they had to be home within 24-hours of giving birth. Responses began to trickle in. She’d get names, due dates and addresses – and that’s all. She didn’t want to start casting, seeking the right look. Each portrait captured a brand new mom and her infant in their home among their own belongings.
“As a photographer, you can build sets, but people set build their whole lives. I really liked that your main attention is the woman and her expression, and then you go to the baby and you see the relationship and the body language. But I love the story going on behind them. They’ve got that sort of sofa, and they’re interested in books, or they’ve got a record player. You start piecing together a personality, and the woman in the central frame, not only is she this triumphant mother, but you start to see her identity and her life and what music is probably playing and it’s such a full picture. And that woman is not just a mother. She is still Meredith. Or Leanna. And everything about being Leanna is still around her.”
The images span race and class and celebrate the normal. The subjects aren’t celebs, they aren’t millionaires. “There’s no hierarchy of emotion,” Jenny says. “It’s life. It doesn’t really get bigger than that.” She posted the images on her website so that women could pop in and look each week, see the new faces, and know, “She’s ok. She’s done it and there she is at home. She’s fine.” And the project started to tell a story of reassurance and support. Women who would otherwise not have spoken would recognize each other. “Oh you’re that redhead from that girl’s project!” It got conversations going.
“It’s crazy and addictive,” she says. “You share a moment with someone. You have a conversation that you’d never have with even some of your best friends because it’s just such a raw intimacy.”
And what about the experience of spending time at home with these brand new moms? “It’s crazy and addictive,” she says. “You share a moment with someone. You have a conversation that you’d never have with even some of your best friends because it’s just such a raw intimacy.” It was like stripping away the layers and being left with the real women, she adds. Any trace of ego had disappeared. They wouldn’t temper their opinions. They’d be one hundred percent themselves. “You can see right into their soul.”
“You are utterly surrounded by stranger’s love, which is something I’d never felt before. Like a bubble, the air feels different. People are so tactile, they welcome you into their homes and they’ve never met you before, you’ve never spoken, and you’re treated like one of the family. No defenses. It’s changed my whole perception of humanity and what we can be like to each other as strangers.” The overwhelming love bubbles to the surface, she says. “It’s good to know that that’s in everyone. I feel differently about everyone. It’s a real privilege to witness.”
Every woman had a story. There was one who’d given birth to a stillborn the year prior. She told Jenny this, holding her new baby in her arms, and explained how with each contraction she had to suppress a wave of fear that she might lose this one. “That control over her body and mind…I just couldn’t believe her strength,” Jenny says. And then there was the single mother who’d met an elderly woman at a bus stop a week before having her baby. The complete stranger insisted that the mother and her son move into her spare bedroom before the baby was born so that they wouldn’t be alone, and that’s where Jenny photographed her. It makes you think, she says, “What if everyone did something? If you cooked dinner for somebody because you knew they were on their own, or you offered to take their five-year-old to the playground to give the woman time for a shower.”
Over five years, Jenny shot 150 portraits of women from every walk of life and what began as a small personal project morphed into One Day Young, a photography book containing 40 images of women spanning a range of ages, cultures and environments. The general response from both men and women has been overwhelmingly positive. “People look at the images and say, ‘They look so beautiful.’ And it’s like, oh my God, we still recognize what natural beauty is. None of these pictures are retouched.”
As with any artistic endeavor, there are those who don’t “get” it. One well-known male art critic could barely look at the book, she says, unable to find the artistic value. Another photography critic said that he’d had a massive argument with his girlfriend about the series a few nights prior. After spending some time with the images, however, he admitted his embarrassment at his initial response, saying that he’d had a mental block. It makes you wonder, she says, “Are those men the curators of art galleries? Are those men the distributors of books? Are those men in power of stories like this spreading? A lot of times, you’ll find that they actually are, so if they don’t respond to it or even acknowledge it’s there, the message doesn’t get out.”
But the momentum continues to build. She’s considering taking the project to Brazil, where the majority of women get C-sections, and France, where women typically spend a few days in the hospital after giving birth. WaterAid is also sending Jenny to Africa this September to shoot a campaign that will highlight vulnerable young women.
One Day Young is a really simple idea, she says. There’s no huge intellectual concept. “It’s just like, this is normal, this is life. This is what happens every day. What’s a shame is that we don’t usually take the time to notice it.”