In the series, “Sorry I gave birth I disappeared but now I’m back”, Hungarian photographer Andi Galdi Vinko reflects on maternity starting with her own personal experience. Her work combines images of pregnant women – mostly friends – portraits of their partners with their firstborn, exhausted women in the act of breastfeeding, children in their first years and photographs of transforming female bodies. The aim is to show, as truthfully as possible, the disruptions brought about by the birth of a baby, especially to the life of the mother. The pain experienced during delivery is only a prelude of what awaits a family and particularly a mom.
Tender and raw at the same time, Andi Galdi Vinko‘s visual narrative displays the contradictions of maternity and shows the challenges that new moms have to face, often on their own due to the weakening of family relationships, as we have witnessed in the past few decades. Looking at these pictures can feel disturbing but also extremely reassuring in that the observer has the chance to get familiar with images they might have never seen before and can deal with a realistic account that focuses on vulnerability, human expression in all its facets, safe from idealized or stereotypical views.
We interviewed the author to find out more about her series, which is soon to be turned into a book – due for release later this year.
How did you become interested in photography?
AGV: There’s something really strange that I never mentioned before… I found old photos of my mother where she’s always with a camera and I’m constantly around her. She has a lot of black and white negative archives that she took in Vietnam in the 70s when she was traveling, with a french journalist girlfriend. She started out as a photographer, but then she got pregnant with me and my brother and she abandoned it to find a job that paid better or – I guess – the circumstances were different for women at the time. Although I went to art school and thought it was my path – that I found for myself, I didn’t realize until I got pregnant that maybe photography was always around me through my mother… maybe I’m on the same path as her, except I don’t want to and I don’t have to give it up.
How has motherhood changed the perspective you have of your job as a photographer?
AGV: After the publication of my series Paradisco, my career was progressing rapidly: I was doing other series, a lot of personal projects, editorials and videos, and in the midst of this, I met my boyfriend and we fell in love like crazy. Five months later, I was pregnant! I thought: “That’s totally nuts! What am I supposed to be doing now? My career is rising. This was not what I had in mind “. But then I just let it happen and made the choice of settle down, be closer to my parents and brothers, finally get an apartment and live what is considered to be “a normal life” after nomadic years.
The series “Sorry I gave birth I disappeared but now I’m back” is centered around your personal experience. What aspects of motherhood were you interested in representing? Why did you choose this title?
AGV: This project is based on myself but like usually I end up shooting my friends too because, as a photographer, I find it really hard to not have a perfect shot even if the situation is spontaneously happening with me. So some of the photos are of my friends, some of the situations are re-staged or even idealized beauty shots, and of course a lot of them are documentary, self-portraits, or personal scenarios, or portraits of my first daughter and my husband. Before giving birth, when I used to look at photo series about motherhood, I just saw mothers standing with their children like that of Rineke Dijkstra’s mesmerising new mothers’ series. I had no idea what it actually meant. Now I know. But what I really missed, three years ago, when I gave birth for the first time (now she has two babies – editor’s note), were photos of everyday motherhood life with this type of honesty. Which is not about how disgusting or gross it is, but I don’t want to represent motherhood in an unrealistic way. In my head, breastfeeding was this stereotyped image of a beautiful woman sitting on the beach with the perfect body, suntanned and breastfeeding her quiet child. The reality of my experience has been very different: for six weeks I could not manage breastfeeding. I was struggling. It was painful. It didn’t work. And I thought “This doesn’t make sense. If I can come down from any mountain with a snowboard or ride a wave with a surf, how can I not manage to breastfeed my child? That’s insane! It’s – this can’t happen “.
I think that your series underlines two facts: the first one is that our visual literacy about motherhood and breastfeeding is limited and, in many cases, we have references that are far from reality – despite the increase in new artistic projects dedicated to this theme. The second one is that women’s bodies are under too much pressure. And vulnerability has to be accounted for in the images that are circulating because otherwise women are led to blame themselves and think about their capabilities and possibilities in a negative way.
AGV: Yes, totally, I agree. I think that in the past few years, there has been more talk about women’s empowerment and acceptance towards different body types but somehow motherhood was left out of the conversation – until just recently. We are now aware of the diversity of bodies but what about when you had a nice body and then, from one day to the next, you don’t have it anymore? Or it’s not even ‘not nice’, it’s just transformed. For me my breasts were always ornaments and suddenly they had a function! I felt like a cow and I couldn’t understand it … I’m a cow nurturing another human being whose life depends on me. No one had prepared me for this. The big difference between our generation and our parents’ generation is that the majority of us doesn’t have the privilege of living with their parents anymore. Everybody gets pregnant much later therefore we don’t see much of it until it happens to us directly. I talked a lot about this with Charlotte Jansen, my friend and the curator of a show about birth in London at TJ Boulting Gallery. I gave her advice on the tantrums and everything because I had just experienced them. And then a few months later she gave me advice on my second child and pregnancy because we both realized we didn’t have a lot of people we could talk about it with. All our artist friends are still hustling out there and doing things. And the title of my series refers to this whole feeling of being left out. It’s really hard to get to a point when you choose your child over your passion, and if you don’t choose your child over passion then it’s also hard. I know it’s a constant balance. And all exhibition openings happen at the time when your child should go to sleep. So you’re either not going to exhibition openings or you’re totally ruining your child’s so called bedtime routine. For example, I got this really good job opportunity when my daughter was four months old and I would have had to stop breastfeeding from one day to the other. And it was a hard choice because it meant I had to leave the continent, get a big vaccine to go abroad. It is a constant struggle. If you want to be a good mother, or if you want to be a healthy mother, then you have to make sacrifices. But if you call it a sacrifice then you’re not a happy mother anymore. So what are you supposed to do? I followed tons of motherhood blogs and I always felt guilty because “this” is their life, the meaning of their life. Becoming a mother is their life and for me that’s not my life. My life is photography, you know? It’s art. It’s doing shoots. It’s being around people. It’s working. Thinking together. That’s what inspires me. I love being a mother don’t get me wrong, I just struggle if I am “only” a mother.
For this second child I just gave birth to, it is so different. The pandemic, and everyone staying at home made people look at motherhood in a different way. I don’t feel like I am missing out on anything and I am so much more relaxed. Breastfeeding still hurts, but I am not worried about my big comeback. I am still working on borrowed time, but I feel like everyone is doing so right now.
You said that that we are alone, both as mothers and working women. We don’t have the same possibilities our moms had because, for example, we don’t live with our parents or close to our parents. And somehow there’s a lack of a community. I also think that we are so focused on performance, individualism, with a constant pressure to produce, produce, produce. Things that are not so compatible with motherhood and be present for another person, a partner, a kid … So my question is: is there room for artist mothers? It’s a question I ask also for myself and for all the women that I know that work in the arts. There are a lot of photographers like you that are doing works and series about these themes, so I think that there is obviously some urgency or need to talk about it.
AGV: When I took part at the exhibition Birth – curated by Charlotte Jansen in 2019 – Hannah Watson, the director of TJ Boulting Gallery, told me that some artists only found work about motherhood when they were asked to show it, because many of them didn’t think this “passage” in their lives had value as art. Today motherhood has become a trendy topic, there are more and more art projects that consider this subject, but for many of us it was not so easy a few years ago. When I first said 4 years ago that I would make a photographic project about motherhood, I was told that it would only be something temporary, that I would go back to my old projects after a year. I continued the series because I thought it was important to show that it’s not just a temporary thing. The commitment to motherhood stays with you forever. If you’re a committed artist you want to be present in the moment. If you’re a committed mother you want to be present in those moments. You want to be there when, I don’t know, when your daughter makes her first steps or goes out on a date for the first time, you know?
Motherhood brings with it many challenges. What super power do you think women should develop?
AGV: Women have to be strong. We spend so much time trying not to get pregnant, than we have such a short time to decide whether we want it or not and try to justify whatever choice we make. Women never talk about their insecurities, their weaknesses. We always have to double prove how strong we are, how capable we are to perform our duties both at work and at home. And as many great thinkers have said – how can art be so important as before when something else became really or even more important? How can you share your love for art with the love for your babies? For me in the beginning the hardest was to believe in creating again, after giving birth everything else that I could create seemed a bit shallow. Of course now it is back to normal, but it takes time and passion and a lot of help and patience. Patience is probably the hardest thing and that goes to the body and the soul too.