“The house is a mess”
“She’s got a really snotty nose today”
“Ignore that clutter over there”
“The lawn’s not been mowed”
“He’s still covered in his lunch”
“There are so many toys”
“This wall needs repainting”
“I hate these tiles”
“I’ve not vacuumed”
“There is cat hair everywhere”
“The washing is still on the line”
For two and a half years I have been photographing mothers and their children for ‘The Mothers’, a project which aims to portray a realistic view of motherhood. I have photographed over a 100 women and seen a vast number of homes. I have met 100s of children through the project and seen how different children at different ages demand different things from their mothers. I have seen that mothers expect too much of themselves and often feel guilty for not achieving the goal of being ‘the perfect mother’. I have also learned that most mothers need to give themselves a break from time to time.
I noticed when I was going to the houses of women who’d already seen ‘The Mothers‘ online, they’d often say, “I’ve seen some of the beautiful houses you’ve photographed – my house doesn’t look like that!”
I never understood their anxiety, because the houses I’ve photographed are so similar – yes, some were smaller, some were bigger, some had more stuff and occasionally there were the ones which were impossibly tidy and clean, but they all had the tell-tale signs that children lived there. Then, in recently curating an exhibition of the photos from the project, I finally understood what these women meant. Small, and in digital format, you could not see the traces of sticky finger prints on the walls, the cats hairs dusted over armchairs, or the streaming noses. The mothers in the photographs, while to me represented real-life, to others they represented the ‘perfect‘ mothers we were all striving to be.
Somehow, the act of photographing and lighting the subject, or creating a selection of images where the mother was happy with her own self-image, elevated these women to a hyper-real version of motherhood. It was only when I blew the images up larger for printing that I saw all of the flaws that made these women real mothers – crumbs, snot, dust, mess, bruised knees. I had seen (although, not specifically noted – they are the things of real life) these marks of reality with my naked eye, but in photographing them, they had become hidden and masked by the aesthetic of the image.
It made me realise that when you see another mother looking serene and calm (with her quiet and well-behaved children in tow) and you feel inadequate or like a bad mother, that those initial appearances can be quite deceiving. She is probably having one of those rare, and very welcome perfect moments that we all have occasionally, but definitely not all of the time.
It made me wonder why there is such a veil over what real motherhood feels and looks like? Does my practice still need to be more honest yet? In choosing the most beautiful or the most flattering images, the kindest composition or softest lighting set up, am I in turn doing an injustice to the mothers who feel inadequate by looking at the images?
Or is helping the mother (being photographed) to feel good about herself and seeing herself in a positive way enough?