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One Day Young: an interview with photographer Jenny Lewis

Meet Jenny Lewis, the inspiring photographer behind One Day Young, a book about new motherhood. Published by Hoxton Mini Press.

Written by Amelia Gregory

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Last night saw the official launch of the first book by photographer Jenny Lewis, who contributed to Amelia’s Magazine in print many times over the years. One Day Young is a beautiful, inspiring and unusual book that features 40 portraits of mothers with their new babies taken within 24 hours of birth. It’s an amazing project that she has been working on for 5 years, designed to shed a positive light on the miracle of motherhood, during that magical period when women feel raw, alive, emotionally and physically battered, confused and in love. Read on to find out more about the project.

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When and why did you decide to start taking photos of mothers just after childbirth?
I think Herb was nearly a year old so about five years ago, I decided I had to do a series to support pregnant women, to reassure women they would be ok. There are only so many people you can reach on a one to one basis and Ruby (now 8) was getting fed up of me talking to strangers at the pool….it’s like I felt a duty to reassure. The general atmosphere around pregnant women is one of anxiety and fear and not of positive encouragement.

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How did you find your mothers, and how many have their been to date?
I leafleted the borough and every high street nearby every few months… anywhere that would take the leaflets, hairdressers, chip shops, yoga centres and newsagents… basically anywhere that would let me. In the last year the Hackney Homebirth midwives were a great help in spreading the word to mothers who maybe wouldn’t of read the leaflets. There were over 150 subjects by the time I handed the project in and I shot Xanthe on deadline day so it was up to the minute and vey hard to stop.

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How did you hook up with Hoxton Mini Press and how did the collaboration proceed?
I had meetings with various publishers but am so glad I ended up with HMP. Ann contacted me from seeing some of the leaflets but they were on my list of publishers to talk to. I had already worked on the series for over three years when I signed with them and had shot over a hundred portraits already…. But I knew I had to keep shooting to fill in some gaps and strengthen the series. They live one road over which has made last minute meetings so much easier when you want to discuss something face to face. It’s the perfect partnership as they specialise in creating east London photo stories and all the women I shot are from Hackney. There is a strict format of size for the photo books but I brought in an amazing designer Stefi Ograzi to help and Lucy Davies wrote the essay. HMP were very generous to let me get on with the book, I’m probably not the best team player having worked for myself for nearly 20 yrs and being fairly stubborn so I appreciate how flexible they were.

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What were you looking for in the photographs that were included in your book?
I wasn’t really looking for anything when shooting the series. I just wanted the honesty of the moment, this is what a woman looks like in the first 24 hrs and as you can see they look empowered and strong and beautiful. Not vulnerable and exhausted as you might expect. The edit was very hard but Stefi was a great help as she wasn’t so emotionally involved and could make some design decisions based on interior background and where the spine of the book would fall rather than all the stories of each woman in my head. The last five decisions were very tough.

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Why do you think we, as a society, gloss over those first raw and wonderful and otherworldly stages of new motherhood?
You ve got to admit there kind of aren’t words to describe this moment it is so primitive and powerful that it’s more of a feeling, maybe language doesn’t do it justice, you just get tangled up in words… Images are more immediate, and because they are not retouched they speak a truth. You can’t very well ignore an image that gives you goosebumps and manages to cut through the crap, no explanation needed…. But that doesn’t answer your question…

Motherhood is seen as domestic / private / not of interest but I think this is a disservice and makes the celebration of the importance of motherhood invisible. I showed Susan Bright the project while I was working on it (she curated Home Truths at the Photographer’s Gallery a few years back) and she said ‘One Day Young is beautiful and important but you will find it very difficult to get this work shown in an art gallery as it’s a subject matter galleries are not interested in.‘ I hope the book and the attention it receives in the press can bring this topic and celebration of motherhood into the main arena and give women another version of birth in their head. Another positive voice to dilute the negative stories.

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What has been the most beautiful thing you have discovered through this project, and what has been the most difficult?
Undoubtedly the strength of women has blown me away time and time again. Single mothers, women that have lost previous babies, women that have lost their own mothers, young women emotionally isolated, first time mothers full of fear, fourth time mothers juggling the needs of their family, as well as women in stable loving relationships… from somewhere they have all found the strength and courage to go through the challenge of birth and come out the other side triumphant. I get the honour of capturing them at the best they will ever be, the best they will ever feel, full to bursting with love for the baby and with a raw pride in themselves which is wonderful to witness. I remember feeling like an Amazonian warrior when I had my kids in that first 24 hrs and I see this look in these women’s eyes: fierce raw pride softened with a measure of pure bliss.

The warmth and openness of 150 families in the borough who were strangers to me, to open their homes at this precious time has encouraged me to look at my community with fresh eyes. My empathy and openness for humanity has certainly changed. I loved Hackney before but we are now inseparable.

I don’t think I found anything really difficult about it… My family may say differently as I was always dashing off halfway through dinner. Duncan my husband would say ‘haven’t you got enough’ or ‘do you really need to do this one?’ I did, I would rush back from a weekend away early so as not to miss someone, try and plan work / play dates for the kids around a due date but birth is not an easy one to plan around.The series became a compulsion and I couldn’t stop. Each new story strengthened the series. It was hard to let people down when they didn’t get home from hospital for a couple of days but I had to be strict on that rule. There’s something pretty magic about the first 24 hrs.

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What do you hope for next with the One Day Young project?
I hope the series will spread encouragement and empowerment to women. It went viral while I shooting a few years ago and ended up as far as Russia/ China/ Brazil so with no boundaries on the internet it may be able to empower women worldwide.

I hope to have an exhibition to put the subject of motherhood in an art gallery setting and create some ripples that this is a valid topic for the art world. I hope to take One Day Young to other countries and to investigate if the women have the same look just a different setting.

Closer to home I am going to be working with Bump Buddies, a befriending service in Hackney which supports vulnerable women from various backgrounds. I will be working with women, doing One Day Young portraits for them amongst other things, to show them as individuals not victims.

One Day Young is out now, published by Hoxton Mini Press.


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