A Maternal Lens

Eye Mama was born during the Covid-19 pandemic as an Instagram account curated by Karni Arieli. It collects refreshingly candid and aesthetically rich images of home life which were shared by parents during lockdown. Now, Eye Mama is being published as a book by teNeues. We speak to the project’s founder about representations of motherhood.

A breastfeeding baby tilts its face up, while its eye is a wide gleaming green pool. The pupil is an intense black dot which stares at you, and also somewhere beyond you. This image, on the first page of Eye Mama: Poetic Truths of Home and Motherhood, a new anthology of more than 200 images, sets the tone for what follows. It is an immersive visual journey through the domestic sphere in all its absurdity, beauty, quiet moments of clarity, visceral realities and entrapment. This is not a book that seeks to show what motherhood looks like but rather how it feels – inhabiting a multiplicity of forms from global perspectives. 

Mothers have taken photographs of their children since the dawn of photography. In the 19th century, Julia Margaret Cameron made constructed portraits of her kids dressed as mythical or Biblical figures. In 1992, Aperture published Sally Mann’s Immediate Family. The illustrated depicted Mann’s three children roaming rural Virginia barefoot and sometimes nude in dramatic duotone, which was met with controversy, with some critics accusing Mann of exploitation. A quote from Mann’s Hold Still: A Memoir with Photographs, appears in Eye Mama. Mann writes: “There cannot be any real beauty without the indolic whiff of decay. For me, living is the same thing as dying, and loving is the same thing as losing.” The reaction to her work was tinged with a sense of outrage that a mother should present her everyday as art, dare to visualise childhood that was not neat but wild, raw and uncontained by adult pleasantries. Photographer Julie Blackmon uses Mann’s works as an inspiration. Blackmon’s three children are recurring figures in her art. However, rather than emphasizing the coarseness of parenthood, she mixes the documentary of everyday life with fictive elements. Her pictures are often amusing and personal.

Today, photography is more expansive to motherhood. Curator Susan Bright’s groundbreaking 2014 exhibition Home Truths: Photography, Motherhood and Identity at The Photographers’ Gallery, London challenged common stereotypes about mothers in society. The past few years, however, have seen an acceleration. Artists such as Lydia Goldblatt or Sophie Harris Taylor created photographic projects around motherhood, self-publishing books and selling them online. Social media gave photographers instant access to audiences, just as it opened a window into artists’ personal lives.

The Black Lives Matter and #MeToo movements were catalysts for photography to embrace sidelined stories that were subsumed in a white, western, financially privileged and cisgendered male gaze. The unique circumstances of the Coronavirus pandemic made us reevaluate the meaning of domestic space. Karni Arieli, an Israeli-born, Bristol-based filmmaker who originally studied photography, acknowledges Instagram’s flaws but it was the starting point for Eye Mama. “I’m not in love with Instagram,” she says. “It’s great for image sharing, but the censorship throws me off — the trolling and egos. It is possible to waste three hours of your life there.” And yet, in her feed, something was taking shape. “Usually, you’d see a photojournalist in Morocco, a fashion photographer here, and it never added up. Everyone documented their reality, and I was seeing a portfolio assembling itself in front of me.” She set up @eyemamaproject, reposting images that she tagged #eyemama to her 18K followers. After lockdown, Eye Mama continued.

There are no facemasks in the book. No portraits through windows. This is not a publication about the pandemic. It’s not even about parenting but, indeed, something bigger. It is about how much of ourselves we reveal and what might be the repercussions of that openness. “Care is looked down upon,” says Arieli. “There are male dominant figures in positions of power within magazines and the art world. I’ve hidden my own motherhood many times in the film world. I would say to myself, I’m ‘putting my man hat on’ when I would go to a shoot because I was trying to be as cool as removed, as non-emotional, unattached, and as free as all the other young men I was seeing who were the ‘ideal’ workforce. But of course, that’s not your authentic self. You’re always compromising.” The clash between the role of artist and mother was the subject of several recent books, such as Hettie Judah’s How Not to Exclude Women Artists and Other Parents (2022)and Ani Galdi Vinko’s photobook SORRY I GAVE BIRTH I DISAPPEARED BUT NOW I’M BACK (2022). 

Arieli states that her intended readers are not mothers exclusively but everyone and anyone. Women’s power has been mitigated over the centuries by treating their experience as less of concern, whilst that of men as universal. If we look back on the iconic images of history, they tend to be photojournalism or street photography. Illustrations of what is happening out there in the world, not at home. The public is important and the personal is frivolous. Yet, as Coronavirus laid bare, history does not only occur on the streets. “Home is where we spend so much of our lives, but we overlook it as a subject,” Arieli points out. “[In 2020-1], you would spend whole days at home. You’d look at the flickering light on the window sill or a moth trapped in a corner. There’s beauty in that but you’d never stay still enough in the modern world to see it.”

The artist invited pictures for the publication via a free-to-enter open call. “I needed to see the copies big. I needed to see them in high resolution. I needed to get more diversity and to make it official,” she says. The issue features non-binary parents, IVF journeys, illness and loss. It takes us to Australia, Japan, the Netherlands and the USA. Well established photographers and new names. “Instagram is democratic and accessible, but photography is meant to be looked at closely, meditatively. On Instagram, you’re always seeing a million other things.” The selection panel included artists Annie Wang and Elinor Carrucci and Head of Global PhotoVogue Alessia Glaviano. The final edit is structured around a day, from dawn through dusk. The pictures reflect the tone of the original project, although not identical. There is a resistance to the idealisation of motherhood but also to its opposite, the negative ‘mummy needs gin’ trope.

The photographer refers to this as the “mama gaze.” How would she define it? “It’s the flavour of the light and dark. It’s the duality.” In many of the images, a certain approach to framing stands out. “I think that the crop comes very much out of motherhood because it’s always haphazard. “How the kid sits on your head, the way you’re falling over, how much you’re exhausted. It’s very hard to frame up perfectly as a mother and motherhood isn’t perfect. The crops reflect something internal and external. How you are present in the frame and how you’re vacant. Sometimes kids will just be standing on their head, and you just see their tiptoes behind the sofa.” There is a continuous ebb and flow between proximity and distance. It is a devotion to hold offspring close, and a desire for independence. It is an understanding of the potential risks that could befall them at every stage in life and an undercurrent of inevitability that they, like everyone, must grow, age and eventually die.

Critic Cyrill Conolly famously said: “There is no more somber enemy of good art than the pram in the hall.” Here, the baby is out of the pushchair, crying, crawling, feeding, drooling and creating chaos in its wake. However, far from a distraction, this is a source of artistic inspiration, a visual material to be sculpted into something remarkable. For Arieli, the book is just the beginning. “We are looking for someone to sponsor this as an ongoing community,” she says. This collection has the potential to swell and grow. We can give birth to a whole movement if it can be nurtured. Eye Mama is by nature incomplete. There will always be more images of motherhood to be made and stories still to be told.

Karni Arieli, Eye Mama | teneues.com

Words: Rachel Segal Hamilton

Image Credits:
1. © Kasia Rychły
2. © Cloe Jancis
3. © Krissima Poba Ngouma
4. © Valeria Sigal
© Josefie Tondeleir