I photograph women breastfeeding their babies and children and until now I have let my photographs of these moments speak for themselves and the message I hoped to convey was one of beauty. Despite the attention paid to my breastfeeding photographs I have said very little on the subject, mainly out of (others) concern that as a small business owner I shouldn’t have opinions, especially those that might be construed as controversial.
I’ve had a lot to reflect on during my first year of business and I’ve done a lot of thinking recently about the path that led me towards breastfeeding photography. I breastfed both my children for a combined total of 26 months. During those months there were countless times that I felt embarassed and ashamed; not because of something I had done but because of others discomfort with breastfeeding. I was encouraged to feed my children in another part of someone’s house; I was handed blankets to cover up; I was asked “isn’t it time he’s weaned?” (my son was 6 months old); I was directed to the nearest washroom where I could nurse ‘in private’; and I had people glare and shake their heads at me in public.
Photographing breastfeeding women has been a way for me to regain some of that lost confidence; it’s been a way for me to give confidence and support other breastfeeding women.
In January I published a blog post looking for women in Ottawa who would be interested in taking part in a breastfeeding photography session. I invited several women to come to my home so that I could photograph them with their breastfeeding babies and children. It was winter and I was enjoying a quiet period before the ‘busy’ of spring sessions; I thought it was a great opportunity to improve my skills and pursue a photography project with a lot of personal meaning. But more than anything I wanted to capture beautiful moments between mothers and their children; something the artist in me finds irresistable. Nothing more, nothing less.
When I published the photographs the response was overwhelming. Annie, blogger and advocate from PhD in Parenting, shared the link, which was subsequently picked up by KellyMom and posted on their Facebook page. By days end there were hundreds of comments, thankfully all positive, and the post had over 4000 page views. For the most part the dissenters kept their comments private but since that time my photographs have been described as gross, inappropriate, disgusting, perverted, and a host of other derogatory names.
Thanks to Andrea, an Ottawa blogger (and lovely friend) at a peek inside the fishbowl, I connected with Hannah Sung, a reporter with the Globe and Mail, who interviewed me about the photographs and the response from others, both positive and negative. There are 119 comments on the article that to this day I have not read (my husband has) because I find it hard not to internalize others disgust. When Hannah asked my opinion about advocacy related to breastfeeding I referred her to PhD in Parenting’s blog post, Covering up is a feminist issue, because until that moment I had not considered myself an advocate. I had somewhat naively believed that I was taking beautiful photos and that was all. It’s not often I’m left stumbling over my words but in this instance I felt that what Annie says expresses the same sentiment that I want to by taking breastfeeding photographs. Annie writes:
“When it comes to breastfeeding, I feel the same way. There is no one definition of how covered a woman should be. Some people think no skin should show at all. Others think anything goes. I don’t think it is the place of anyone other than the breastfeeding mother to decide whether or how much to cover.”
“Beauty may be in the eye of the beholder, but when it comes to dressing and breastfeeding, appropriateness should be decided by the woman herself. If other people don’t like it, they should discreetly avert their eyes.”
As an entrepreneur, my business is taking photographs. As an artist, my love is taking photographs that evoke emotion and a response in others. For me, breastfeeding photography has been a wonderful combination of both. When I published those first photographs in February my intent was nothing more than to share beautiful photographs from a sun-filled morning with a wonderful group of moms and their babies. The unexpected outcomes have been a mixed blessing; I’ve had the opportunity to connect with and photograph countless moms with their breastfeeding babies and children, experiences that have been fun, meaningful, and have allowed me to express myself artistically. But at the same time I have felt uncertain about how to use my photographs to advocate for women because I didn’t know how to balance business with ‘politics’.
What I’ve realized is that while I am an entrepreneur and photographer, I am a woman and mother first. I hope to use my photographs and my words to support mothers, recognizing that people may not choose me as their photographer for that reason. It’s a risk that I’m willing to take because if you don’t stand for something you will fall for anything
My wish for my photographs is that they are loved dearly by the women who are the subjects. That they instill a sense of confidence and beauty in those same women; something I didn’t experience as a breastfeeding mother. I hope that the photos are appreciated and recognized for their beauty and for the message their convey. And that they stimulate dialogue and discussion.
There is a famous Ansel Adams quote “There are always two people in every picture: the photographer and the viewer”. When you look at my photographs I hope, if its even for a brief moment, you can see what I see. There is a piece of me in every picture I take and probably more so in these photographs than any other.
ETA: The spider is “Maman“, located outside the National Gallery of Canada. She is described as “a nurturing and protective symbol of fertility and motherhood, shelter and the home”
Sara McConnell Photography ~ Ottawa Breastfeeding Photographer, Ottawa Children’s Photographer, Ottawa Baby Photographer