About six years ago, photographer Jenny Lewis posted leaflets throughout London’s Hackney borough looking for 10 women who would pose with their newborn baby within 24 hours of giving birth. Her goal: to capture a woman’s strength during one of the most intimate times of her life.
Her friends thought her plan was pretty unorthodox.
“My mates were like, ‘No one’s going to call you, no one’s going to want to do it,'” Lewis said of her friends’ reactions. “But I got an email and I was like, ‘yeah, there we go.'”
When Lewis set out on this journey she didn’t know that she would be taking pictures of new mothers for the next five years, nor could she have imagined the amazing stories she would hear.
The whole project, which she thought would be a series of six, maybe 10 photographs for her website, all began out of frustration.”I had two kids and it had gone really well and I probably felt the most empowered and strong I’d ever felt,” Lewis said, explaining that everyone else had always focused on the negatives of pregnancy. “All the stories I’d been fed when I was pregnant were like, take all the drugs you can. It’s a nightmare, it’s painful. Everyone always felt open to share the bad stuff.”
Lewis wanted to capture the other side of the story — that odd mix of relief and pride that she felt after giving birth. The project got off to a slow start, but after she photographed and talked to the first few mothers, she decided to expand the project.
“Twenty sounded better. Then I got 20, and I was like 50 will be really good, maybe 100 would be, like, smashing it,” Lewis said.
She ended up taking pictures of 150 mothers with their newborns and published a book, “One Day Young.”
Lewis has been an editorial photographer for 20 years, taking pictures of famous actors, musicians, and authors, including John Goodman, Dame Maggie Smith, and the Beastie Boys to name a few. But this pet project hit a deeper chord.
“It’s just real life,” Lewis said. “What was just on my doorstep was more interesting than any pictures I’ve ever taken.”
Because Lewis is invited into the homes of women who have just given birth and who she has never, before that moment, met in person, Lewis bonds with the subjects of her photographs rapidly. She said she remembers each interaction with the mothers she has photographed.
“There’s no barrier. So whatever’s on their mind comes up,” Lewis said. “So I’ll have someone telling me they lost their mother when they were two. They didn’t know what a mother is. Now they’re being something they never witnessed. That was such an emotional conversation.”
In October, Lewis teamed up withWaterAidto take her project to Malawi. There, she highlighted the challenges mothers face who don’t have access to clean water.
“I’d meet women who walked 13 hours to get to the health center, and were nine and a half months pregnant, and they’d wait for two weeks to have the baby,” Lewis said.
Despite these mothers living a completely different life than the 150 women featured in her book, Lewis said all the women had something in common during the personal moments she shared with them.
“The emotions on the women’s faces and their body language was similar to the women in London,” Lewis said of the Malawi mothers. “Because again, what takes over is the primitive. It’s the overwhelming joy and relief, the pride in yourself. You know, no one else has done it, you have done it.”
Story and editing by Andrew Fowler
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