In 2019, a United Nations report was published. It stated that single parents have been those hardest hit by austerity measures in the UK, information which sparked documentary photographer Polly Braden (b. 1974) to action. She decided to make Holding the Baby, a series of images exploring the lived experiences, strength and resilience of families impacted by these challenges. The collection is now on show in an exhibition at Arnolfini, featuring participants from Bristol, London and Liverpool.
There were three million single parents living the UK in 2021 – accounting for 15.4% of all families. Over the the last two years, Braden has been working with Fran, Jahanara, Charmaine, Aaron, Barbeline, Caroline, Gemma and Carike: documenting their lives through the lens. In one such image, we see Jahanara at the dining table, light streaming in through the window. Two children, crayons in hand, look up at her – drawing books strewn in front of them. Elsewhere, Barbeline and Elijah walk in front of a striking red backdrop, whilst Charmaine and her daughter Esme share time on the beach.
Such scenes are typical of Braden’s approach: highlighting quiet, intimate moments from the everyday. This kind of honesty is only achievable through long-term, in-depth collaboration. At times, it’s easy to forget the camera is present at all – with some shots taken during lockdown by the parents themselves. What’s key is that the individuals are invited to tell their own stories. Portraits are accompanied by revealing and tender excerpts from interviews conducted by journalist Sally Williams, for example. There are also reflective words from a wider group of single parents instigated by writer Claire-Louise Bennet, alongside data and statistics outlining the reality of what it means to be a single parent in the UK.
Yet Holding the Baby is not only about highlighting difficult circumstances. It’s about sharing human experiences – capturing an innate sense of adventure, optimism, creativity and ambition. As the cost of living crisis escalates, this thought-provoking exhibition asks important questions of its audience: How do we define the meaning of ‘home’? How has austerity affected life in Britain? What happens when we make space for the human beings behind the statistics, and listen to what they have to say?
Until 12 June. Find out more here.
Words: Eleanor Sutherland
1. Barbeline and Elijah, Holding the Baby 2021 by Polly Braden. Courtesy of the artist. All rights reserved.
2. Jana with Izaan and Yaana, Holding the Baby 2021 by Polly Braden. Courtesy of the artist. All rights reserved.
3. Barbeline and Elijah, Holding the Baby 2021 by Polly Braden. Courtesy of the artist. All rights reserved.
4. Charmaine with her daughter Esme, Holding the Baby 2021 by Polly Braden. Courtesy of the artist.
All rights reserved.