Breastfeeding is a natural way of feeding your baby, yet, it remains one of the most contested acts . Stories of mothers being shamed for breastfeeding in public are a regular feature in media. As August is breastfeeding awareness month and also women's month, South African specialist photographer Leah Hawker has launched her book titled “Breastfeeding 101” to celebrate breastfeeding moms from around the world. She talks to us about the book.
Tell us about the story behind and inspiration behind your book "Breastfeeding 101"? Amongst other things I work with a lot of birth, new-born and maternity photography and my connections to local midwives and doulas meant my social media feed was saturated in the frenetic current debates surrounding the controversial nature of how women are treated when breastfeeding. I was intrigued that this part of our anatomy was such a contentious issue for so many. The breast is both sexual and nutritive and I think this is a very uncomfortable idea for people to sit with. I loved the idea of exploring the subject as a large scale portrait series and so I started working on it, intuitively, alongside many other self-motivated projects.
How did you go about selecting the mothers you photographed? I felt it was important to re-ignite, conceptually, the oral traditions of passing information between people. It is a strength women share: the act of passing on information and knowledge from generation to generation: between families, friends and support groups. This is an age old concept which benefits us all and which is often lost in the buzz and tech of modern living. So I reached out to two of my cousins who were new mothers and told them about the project. I asked them to share the concept with the women they knew and thus the project unfolded organically: from one mother to the next so that almost all of the mothers in this project are interconnected in some way.
There are only 4 mothers in the entire project of 101 portraits that I actually approached directly.
After connecting to each Mother I co-ordinated an interview and a photo shoot. We found diverse public locations; everywhere from a forest in Utrecht, Netherlands, outside a neighbours house in Delft, Cape Town. I shot as widely and diversely as possible. I photographed mothers from Somalia, Germany, Zimbabwe, Malawi, Austria, Holland, Namibia, Malaysia, China, Portugal, South Africa and more!
Is there a story behind each image? Every Mother shared a unique story with me. The stories covered many variables depending on the mothers cultural and personal backgrounds. After the first 30-40 portraits I felt like I must, by then, have covered it all but the subject just kept unfolding. The contradictions, joys, pain, funny moments, struggles and diversities of women's stories is like a never ending pit of information, I had no idea!
Now, after photographing 101 portraits, I realise there is still so much I don't know about the subject and even about what women experience when they become mothers. It's surprised many people that I’m myself not a mother; I'm a photographer that has a specific interest in dealing with women's issues.
There is a story behind every image. I had numerous conversations over coffee, exchanged voice notes, text messages and emails and received questionnaires that were most likely typed out, one-handed, by mothers while the other cradled a baby at the breast.
What would you like the reader to take away from the photographs? The photographs and the anecdotes are colourful, culturally diverse, enlightening, bizarre, painful, emotional, and surprising. They tell unique stories and reveal surprisingly uncommon knowledge which, I feel, underpins the project. The current influences and outside factors affecting women, breastfeeding and infant health are substantial. The stories told in this book are therefore important ones.
* The book is available for R385.00 at Exclusive books nationwide, via orders on the website www.breastfeeding101.co.za and at numerous independent book stores in South Africa.