“It’ll be the most painful experience you’ve ever had; you’ll probably rip something; it could come out the wrong way round; you’ll be in for a week at least.” When it came to giving birth to her first daughter, photographer Jenny Lewis had heard every horror story going and so naturally expected the worst. She was prepared for every eventuality—everything, that is, except for what actually happened. “I left the hospital and I felt like an Amazonian,” she tells me. “I felt like the strongest woman on earth.”
This experience inspired Jenny’s latest photography project, comprising portraits of Hackney mothers taken within 24 hours of giving birth. Entitled One Day Young, they were collected through a combination of leaflet dropping, friendly midwives and word of mouth.
Why did you decide to only shoot Hackney mums?
Because I had to get to them within 24 hours of them giving birth and it was just me on my bike with my camera. Juggling young kids myself and trying to get to the mothers when they’d left the hospital and 18 hours had already passed was just frantic—I wasn’t in the right state of mind when I arrived. And it didn’t work doing it two or three days after the birth.
It’s just not the same later on. The reality has started to sink in after a few days. It is so amazing to be able to show such a private moment when everything is so intense, everything is new. I didn’t set up the shots, I didn’t put the sitters in poses or tell them what to wear, yet 99 per cent of the time they are holding the baby and the baby’s head is close to their own, because it’s animal instinct. They are bonding with their child. I liked seeing the baby’s flesh close to the mother’s skin because it is so red and raw next to their complexion. Within six hours that will change.
What was the aim of the project?
After giving birth to Ruby, I got a bit stoked up about motherhood. I realised there was this story to tell—no one had ever told me giving birth was okay. Mothers feel ashamed to say it even, like they feel that by doing so they are showing off and being smug. So those stories are shamed into silence. It’s fair enough that the story of being home in four hours doesn’t get into the mainstream media—it’s not dramatic—but I still think it needs telling. There are 40 women in my book who found giving birth okay and it’s helpful for pregnant women to hear the good stories, too.
Who were you focusing on: mothers or babies?
It’s not a book about babies. It’s about the mothers. I don’t care if it’s the back of the baby’s head in the photo. I started doing One Day Young because I was incensed that childbirth and motherhood wasn’t being celebrated enough.
Were you surprised by how calm the women were? Assuming they really are as calm as they appear to be!
They really are—and no, I didn’t think I would see that time and again. You’d have thought three hours after a baby’s been born there’d be screaming and mania. Instead, it was like all the stresses of life had just gone away. You don’t often go into a room where there is just love; where everything has been put on hold for a second and there is just LIFE, there, happening. No wonder I did it for five years. It got really addictive.
How did you know when to stop?
I wanted to keep doing it until I felt like I had the right combination of women. I didn’t want to do a book on motherhood without young mothers, or mothers of different races and beliefs. The last girl I did was 16 or 17 years old and she looked brilliant. She was dripping in love for her baby and she seemed so mature. I thought: did she mature and grow the second she had that baby, or did it happen in pregnancy? It was after I photographed her that I thought, I’ve done it.
Jenny Lewis’ book; One Day Young, is now available to buy here or in Mamas & Papas stores