My Final Major Project, Other Mothers, explores non-biological maternality, the mothering of a child who is not the mother’s own, whether through birth or adoption (1). It will hold a tension between issues of loss, abandonment and displacement on the one hand, and bonding, belonging and healing on the other. The project’s epicentre will be shared and divergent memories, told both visually through photography and acoustically, through audio recordings.
The Journey so far
Other Mothers comes from my own experience of a disappeared mother, who left my father and I permanently and without warning when I was three years old. The FMP is a destination for the work done thus far during the MA which has looked sequentially at mothers grieving the loss, through suicide, of their children, of the immediate aftermath of my mother’s departure, to the long-term impact of a mother’s leaving on a child and young adult to, more recently, an understanding and realisation that although I was Motherless, I very far from un-mothered.
Why did these women gift me motherhood? What did it mean for them? When, exactly, were the thresholds crossed between relative or family friend into a mother-son dynamic? How did that happen? Why did I accept such mothering? When, given my Mother’s departure, did it become dependable, and how? What did it look like? What did it feel like?
Attempting to answer such questions is forcing me to be a little ruthless, both with myself and my Other Mothers, but also with a potential audience for the resulting work. I am entirely focused on finding some semblances of answers to these questions and doing my best to visualise/record them. But I do not propose a neat package allowing easy digestion (even if that were possible). What answers I have thus far (and I suspect will remain so) are fragments of half-remembered conversations and memories.
The audio outcome will be segments of recorded conversations between myself and my Other Mothers which will play as a backdrop to the photographic work or, in book format, as text which will work in a parallel, enhancing or counterpoint relationship with the images (2).
The photographic outcome will be a series of staged images involving my Other Mothers and I, informed by recent conversations between each of us about key moments in our relationships.
The work draws on a rich vein of visualised motherhood, from artists such as Cemre Yesil, whose recent Double Portrait (3) seeks to join the two ends of motherhood – being a daughter and becoming a mother, to Larry Sultan’s searching and high constructed domestic narrative in Pictures from Home (4) to the raw and provocative eight year project Leigh Ledare’s Pretend You’re Actually Alive (5), in which he explores his ex-ballerina mother’s sexuality.
Other Mothers finds fresh groundin a congested plot by looking at motherhood through the experience of being mothered in the absence of Mother, at the ‘holding’ of a child psychologically and physically can take multiple, shared, forms after trauma. This aspect I hope will be key to its wide appeal, and for some a source of hope.
Light, colour and shape will be hugely important in conveying a sense of what these moments ‘felt’ like. Four artists particularly resonate with me when I consider the most formative times with my Other Mothers looked and felt like: Elinor Carucci, Elena Brotherus, Ana Casas Broda, Laura Letinksy and Alec Soth.
The embrace of light of Broda in Kinderwunsch (6) conjure almost perfectly my earliest times with my grandmother, her fireplace, her dining room and her two dogs Sarah and Daisy, and my best friend’s mother Sue, whose home always seemed darkly lit. The cool, distanced, palette of Brotherus (Anonciation) (7) and Letinksy (8) correspond closely to my memories of my Aunty Liz, my father’s girlfriend Fiona and babysitter Julie. Elinor Carucci’s work Mother (9), with its intimate, earthy tones, resonate with my memories of Lisa (Liz), who eventually became my mother and then mother to my siblings Isabel and Ben.
But in terms of the actual situation I found myself in, some of Gregory Crewdson’s stagings in Twilight (10) seem more apt. We were all trying in those early years to paper over the deep ruptures resulting from my Mother’s disappearance. There was, as Crewdson’s work brings vividly to life, much going on ‘under the surface’. I’m keen to weave traces of inspiration from all of these artists into the work.
As a precursor to this project, I created a mini-project with my children surrounding our fears, with a view to the type of staging I had in mind for Other Mothers.
Play was central to each of my relationships with my Other Mothers (night-time picnics with Julie, dressing up with my grandmother, indoor tennis with my step-mother) and, as a result, ‘play’ will play a central role in the Other Mothers staged photographs, both as a theme and as part of the process.
Play is central to Timothy Archibald’s personal work Echolilia (11), in which Archibald photographs his son, who has autism, in a series of beautifully moving, real, though staged, moments of play. More importantly, the work itself is play – between a father and a son – and in that play, says Archibald: “We both felt like we were digging and mining this situation together to try to figure it out, or figure something out. And in the end we didn’t get any tangible answers…but amidst it all we built a bridge.”
Similarly with Other Mothers, I intend to create real, though staged, acts of play, both in content, the play of memory via shared recreation with my Other Mothers and in the documentation of that play, by having my daughter and son refining the tableau and deciding when to press the shutter, creating a further play in terms of authorial ‘gaze’. As we found in my previous staged work with my children, such as Becomings (12), the photographic process itself becomes play. Here it will take on added dimension in that the story, ultimately a shared family story, will be brought to life through three generations.
There remains a risk of psychological harm to all involved. This project is deeply personal and has involved various members of my family, and myself, confronting a difficult and painful past (it has touched on eating disorders, the inability to conceive, the death of children – my Aunt’s loss of an adopted daughter, and my step-mother’s first miscarriage). Fortunately, I’m used to dealing with extremely sensitive subject matter and have applied that learning to this personal work. Openness about motives, process and outcomes has been essential. Work has, and will continue to be, discussed and shown in advance or any further dissemination. To date, all involved have found being part of this work cathartic and liberating. It is essential that I continue with regular ‘health checks’ on my subjects during the FMP and to keep them abreast and involved throughout.
My most elderly participant is my grandmother, who is now aged 99 and very frail. She has received her 2nd vaccination for Covid-19 and I will be receiving my second dose in July. I do not intend to photograph with her until that has taken place and will carry out a risk assessment before photographing with her.
(1) Sarah Blaffer Hrdy (2011). Mothers and others : the evolutionary origins of mutual understanding. Cambridge (Mass.): Belknap Press Of Harvard University Press. Hrdy’s book will be a vital component in my research, looking as she does at the evolution of “cooperative breeding”.
(2) Nikolajeva, M. and Scott, C. (2006). How Picturebooks Work. New York, Ny: Routledge. Although Nikolajeva focusses on children’s picture books, what she says about how they work and how those which do work, must work immediately, will be vital in my combining images and text, whether printed or sound broadcast.
(3) Yesil, C (2021). Double Portrait. Istanbul. Filbooks.
(4) Sultan, L. (2017). Pictures from home. London: Mack.
(5) leighledare.com. (n.d.). Pretend You’re Actually Alive — Leigh Ledare. [online] Available at: https://leighledare.com/Pretend-You-re-Actually-Alive [Accessed 20 Jun. 2021].
(6) Ana Casas Broda (2013). Kinderwunsch. Madrid: La Fábrica.
(7) Brotherus, E. (2015). Carpe fucking diem. Heidelberg: Kehrer.
(8) Anon, (n.d.). Laura Letinsky. HARDLY MORE THAN EVER. [online] Available at: https://lauraletinsky.com/photographs/hardly-more-than-ever/ [Accessed 19 Jun. 2021].
(9) Carucci, E. (2013). Mother. Munich: Prestel.
(10) Crewdson, G. and Moody, R. (2003). Twilight. New York: Harry N. Abrams.
(11) ECHOLILIA / Sometimes I wonder. (n.d.). ABOUT OUR PROJECT. [online] Available at: http://www.echolilia.com/about [Accessed 19 Jun.2021]
(12) LCFalmouth. (n.d.). LCFalmouth. [online] Available at: https://laurencecawley.pb.photography/waterandrocks.