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Interview: Cape Times on Breastfeeding 101 by Leah Hawker

Cape Times Newspaper (full) Article

Newspaper article by Nontando Mposo, 26th August 2019

What drew you into photography?

I’m a creative, I can’t live happily without making, doing and creating and I just sort of fell into photography the moments after I finished Matric. I could have done many things I think but photography was a happenstance actually. My Dad called me up one morning and said it was enrolment day at Ruth Prowse School of Art (in Woodstock). I went immediately and that was that.
I loved it from the get-go. It’s the perfect creative and expressive format to bring across my feelings and ideas about life, about being a woman and what that means in this day and age.

Tell us about the story behind and inspiration behind you book
“Breastfeeding 101”

Amongst other things I work with a lot of birth, new-born and maternity photography and my connections to local midwives and doulas meant my social media feed was saturated in the frenetic current debates surrounding the controversial nature of how women are treated when breastfeeding.

I was intrigued that this part of our anatomy was such a contentious issue for so many. The breast is both sexual and nutritive and I think this is a very uncomfortable idea for people to sit with.
I loved the idea of exploring the subject as a large scale portrait series and so I started working on it, intuitively, alongside many other self-motivated projects.

I’m always working on many self-motivated and pro-bono projects concurrently, I do this alongside my commercial, income generating photographic work.

How did you go about selecting the mothers you photographed? and is there a story behind the chosen backdrops?

I felt it was important to re-ignite, conceptually, the oral traditions of passing information between people. It is a strength women share: the act of passing on information and knowledge from generation to generation: between families, friends and support groups. This is an age old concept which benefits us all and which is often lost in the buzz and tech of modern living.
So I reached out to two of my cousins who were new mothers and told them about the project. I asked them to share the concept with the women they knew and thus the project unfolded organically: from one mother to the next so that almost all of the mothers in this project are interconnected in some way.

There are only 4 mothers in the entire project of 101 portraits that I actually approached directly.

After connecting to each Mother I coordinated an interview and a photoshoot. We found diverse public locations; everywhere from a forest in Utrecht, Netherlands, to outside a neighbours’ house in Delft, Cape Town.
I shot as widely and diversely as possible. I photographed mothers from Somalia, Germany, Zimbabwe, Malawi, Austria, Holland, Namibia, Malaysia, China, Portugal, South Africa and more!

Is there a story behind each image?

Every Mother shared a unique story with me. The stories covered many variables depending on the mothers cultural and personal backgrounds. After the first 30-40 portraits I felt like I must, by then, have covered it all but the subject just kept unfolding. The contradictions, joys, pain, funny moments, struggles and diversities of women’s stories is like a never ending pit of information, I had no idea!
Now, after photographing 101 portraits, I realise there is still so much I don’t know about the subject and even about what women experience when they become mothers. It’s surprised many people that I’m myself not a mother; I’m a photographer that has a specific interest in dealing with women’s issues.

There is a story behind every image. I had numerous conversations over coffee, exchanged voice notes, text messages and emails and received questionnaires that were most likely typed out, one-handed, by mothers while the other cradled a baby at the breast. I tried to retain each woman’s voice through the transcribing process; the texts were, however, edited in places for clarity and understanding.The data incorporated on each page gives extra insight – the context of each mother’s location, age and that of her child or children serve as a further layer to the narrative.

What would you like the reader to take away from the photographs?

The title of the project is Breastfeeding 101 and even though it is not intended as a manual, it may serve as one. The term “101” refers to learning or knowing the basics of a subject. There is a discrepancy between experiential knowledge of breastfeeding and common beliefs, and it is these two elements which play through the stories and images. Some may argue about truth, about what is right or wrong, but that is not the point here. What is important is that these women stand for their owntruths. A truth each found through lived experience. It is also evidence of experiences that are collectively true for many women.

The photographs and the anecdotes are colourful, culturally diverse, enlightening, bizarre, painful, emotional, and surprising. They tell unique stories and reveal surprisingly uncommon knowledge which, I feel, underpins the project.The current influences and outside factors affecting women, breastfeeding and infant health are substantial. The stories told in this book are therefore important ones.

How do you get inspired? And what inspires you the most?

Working on exciting creative projects which investigate women’s issues excites and inspires me, always. I’d love to work on more big projects like this for large organisations who support women,- this is the dream.
The way we experience gender identity is a subject I’m so interested in. Women’s bodies and women’s identity is used very objectively in media and the effects this has on both men and women is fascinating. There are so many elements involved in making us who we are; from family traditions, cultural rites of passage, our experiences with our bodies, how marketing  portrays us, big pharma and politics.
For example in the case of this project, Breastfeeding 101, I was most interested in how one part of women’s anatomy is so controversially viewed and treated by both ourselves and by others.

Where can people purchase your book and for how much?

The book is available for R385.00 at Exclusive books nationwide, via orders on the website and at numerous independent book stores in South Africa.

You can find more of my work on and on Instagram: _breastfeeding_101


Link to the online article here