A Hackney photographer, whose photo projects have portrayed the lives of local Londoners for years, has been commissioned by Wateraid to capture the struggles of childbirth and the triumph of motherhood in Malawi.
Stepping into Jenny Lewis’s unassuming Hackney studio, the walls are adorned with pictures of women. Their exhausted faces tell of the journey their bodies have just completed: all have become mothers less than 24 hours before the shot was taken as part of Lewis’s One Day Young project.
Lewis, 41, has photographed local mothers for several years, but earlier in 2015, she published a book that caught the attention of the international charity Wateraid. The charity’s latest project in Africa needed a new visual angle and her portraits of mothers and babies in the first hours of life depicted a humanizing moment that spoke to communities across the world.
Thus, the opportunity for a partnership was presented. Lewis recalled being approached for the project: “They just wanted me to shoot in the same way and capture their triumph in that first 24 hours. Shooting the women’s strength, rather than their vulnerability and not showing them as victims but showing them as women the same as us in that same moment.”
However, taking the photoshoot to an international level did not come without problems.
Lewis was faced with language barriers, culture differences and a new country. “I was nervous that this time I was an outsider. That was my fear — that I would be an outsider. A white woman turning up with a lot of equipment in a car to a culture that I knew nothing about to a woman’s situation that I knew nothing about.”
Nonetheless, she found that the emotional rock bed of her work still held.
“The emotions are all the same even though the challenges that they’re facing are far, far greater and the risks to them are far bigger. ͞The series is a way of bringing awareness to the challenges of maternal health in a country where you have no running clean water and a health centre with no water.”
Although One Day Young is now connecting people globally, the initial aim was to overcome local negativity surrounding childbirth. The art itself was born out of a moment of frustration following Lewis’s second birth. “I was kind of left with this feeling. Feeling quite angry and frustrated that no one had told me any positive or celebratory stories about birth.”
While Lewis set out to celebrate the miracle of childbirth she inadvertently addressed a number of social issues, and overcame barriers that prevented discussions of motherhood.
“Why is it difficult to celebrate something? Is it the UK? We don’t feel confident enough to talk about things that we’ve done well. Why can’t you try and use your positive experience to help other women? There just didn’t seem to be this platform and dialogue to help support other women.”
The momentum for Lewis’s work has grown exponentially. Despite a slow start, which saw her flyer shops and takeaways for participants, she has had resounding success online, with positive feedback from countries including Israel, China and Russia.
Lewis believes that in offering an alternative to media images, she is redrawing boundaries and making space for invisible mothers in the media. “It was overwhelming, the emotions and the endorphins or the pride so there was no self consciousness. They have achieved. What’s to hide?”
Now Lewis’s work has become an international vehicle to communicate that women all share this same power no matter their circumstances.
“Maybe this project can be used as a tool in other cultures and other countries, and it’s amazing that this small little domestic project that I started in Hackney has reached so far. I don’t think it’s over.”
The One Day Young book is available from Hoxton Mini Press.
WaterAid’s Deliver Life appeal aims to reach 130,000 mothers and their families around the world with safe water . Every £1 donated to the appeal until 10 February will be doubled by the UK Government – meaning it can help twice as many mothers and babies stay safe and well. For more, visit www.deliverlife.wateraid.org