“Motherhood; talk about a passion project…” says Hannah Starkey, London based photographer and mother of two girls, ages 11 and 12. Her work was first featured on The Daily Beast in a survey of 15 female art photographers, on the occasion of International Women’s Day. Throughout her career, Starkey has explored the representation, identity, and interaction of the contemporary woman—an ever-evolving process of reflection since she began working in her twenties.
In the company of Mothers is her newest series of work, currently on view at Tanya Bonakdar Gallery in New York, through May 25. In an interview with Lisa Larson-Walker, photo editor for The Daily Beast, Starkey describes the progression of her work, the visceral and complex process of photographing mothers, and the significance of making art for the empowerment of women.
How have your daughters affected the development of your approach to photographing women, and your thoughts on feminine identity as a whole?
My perspective on this has been a constant evolution, one moment at a time. Images are incredibly powerful, and we are bombarded with thousands upon thousands of them a day. I became very conscious of how women are portrayed, growing up in the 80s and 90s. It was very one-dimensional, using women to advertise products in essence by selling sex … and what I find interesting, it’s the same old technique—borrowing language from pornography and the fashion industry; that vernacular is very complicated—and today the same approach persists.
Billboards advertising swimwear, from generic department stores to the high-end luxury brands, they’re ostensibly selling sex and still objectifying women. When I think of my daughters, and as an image-maker, I feel compelled to reconstruct an approach to image making in a way that empowers women. Photography has a very powerful subliminal influence that we underestimate in a lot of ways.
That point relates to everyone, regardless of gender. It’s very apparent and problematic that women are still objectified by advertising, but as a whole, all consumers are subjected to messages that appeal on a base level of sex and insecurity. You take a stand against these crushingly banal forces when making artwork that has a more philosophical or poetic stance.
I absolutely agree. I’m interested in making photographs that make you want to look for a very long time, as opposed to the usual barrage of a new image every five seconds. We’re all visually led, and highly sophisticated in our visual understanding. When you think about it, globally, we’ve only been mass consumers of the written word for the past couple hundred years, but our visual language has evolved for thousands of years.
What evolution do you trace in your own work?
My work is autobiographical, but also about commonality of experience, in particular with women. I started in my twenties and the progression of my work so far has followed a chronological order of how I have grown up, as a reflection of my life at some point.
The early works are very much an externalization of how women communicate in an urban environment. Then of course, certain things happen, you grow older, you have a family, different things start to inform your work, and then your practice changes. And there was a point, in terms of introspection, where a lot of my female characters turned away from the camera, partly because I wanted to turn away from that consumerist gaze that we were talking about, but also to try to make the viewer work harder to understand the psychological state of the subject of the photograph, as opposed to just immediately consuming the image of a female form.
That work was also about the incredible sadness of all the female voices that went unrecorded or unheard. And a terrible sense of loss at the realization of how many great minds we never got to hear because of gender. For a period of time, yes, my work did turn away a little bit…
It was a synthesis of so many things. A rest from the consuming gaze, reevaluating the internal state of the subject, rather than placing them in the context of working in the world, as my earlier work did.
The bottom line is that my photography is influenced by my experiences, as a woman, as a mother, an artist, as a—particularly as a woman, reacting to how women are represented in our visual culture and how that affects me. I try to take all of these influences together to form a singular picture.
Click below for a gallery of Hannah Starkey's images from 'In the Company of Mothers'
The mothers who appear in the series, how were subjects selected?
It was a mix of people I have known previously with people I had newly met just before taking their picture.
Motherhood is a tough job, and I do happen to spend a great deal of my time in the company of mothers. I wanted to make a celebratory set of pictures that were realistic but empowering because I have a tremendous amount of respect for other mothers. I wanted to make them heroic, at the same time, very much grounded in reality.
Some of the mothers I know because their children also attend my daughters' school, others are mothers I stopped on the street. It was all shot in East London and Hackney. It’s a wonderful thing to be able to go out into the world with an idea—it takes a lot for me to do this, but when you engage a stranger, and uncover a mutual interest in each other’s way of thinking, there is a remarkable energy. The mothers I worked with for this show were all very passionate in this way.
I just liked talking to them and feeling their love—and despair—at the same time, to share that kind of understanding. Because motherhood is such a monumental job: this can never be underestimated.
When I approached a mother and son standing at a bus stop [who were then photographed against a nearby blue wall, August 2012] it was just a lovely, sudden, deep moment with a stranger, where you could actually talk about common experience. But explaining your thoughts to someone who might board a bus at any moment was quite intense; you have to get a lot of information across in a short amount of time. Suddenly you are having a conversation with someone who was a complete stranger moments before. This is what I love about photography.
I sent her a print of this picture, and then I asked her if it were ok to present it in the exhibition, and her immediate response was, “I love that photo.” The interesting thing about this motherhood project is that some of the mothers who I photographed have had a very definite, positive, personal response to their portraits. That was good enough for me, really.
It is fantastic, especially from an encounter with a complete stranger. Really respected what she had to say, and I really respected the job she had in front of her.
What aspects of being a mother have changed your creative approach?
There are very valuable skills that you learn raising children. Mothers do adapt well to any situation, but I’ve always had an attitude that embraced serendipity, that’s one of those things that makes me a junkie for photography.
I can’t quite get to the bottom of your question because the role of a mother is so complex, that it’s hard to understand even when you’re doing it. The work from In the Company of Mothers is trying to understand what was that process, what was that decade of my life.
It’s less of an evaluation and more an attempt to make sense of an era. I was one of the first generations of women who were able to have it all, to have both the children, and the career. From this perspective, it’s quite interesting to be able to do a project like this, and to try to assess the impact of these expectations.
What do you plan to work on after this exhibition?
I intend to explore this project for a long time. There are many stages in the relationship between mother and child, but generally, as children get older, a mother surrenders more and more of her influence to popular visual culture. Advertising engenders children with accepted notions of perfection pretty early on, essentially inaugurating a period of self-criticism and angst familiar to most parents—and most people within their own experience of feeling vulnerable in the face of popular expectations.
In the Company of Mothers will be an ongoing body of work that will explore both this influence of photography, as well as women within that relationship. In the most basic way, we all have a mother, and have all gone through the process from birth of learning how to see the world.
In centering this series on the life cycle of a woman’s visual awareness, it’s as much about the relationship between mothers and children as it is about how the depiction of women is at the root of pursuing a more equitable cultural attitude towards gender.
Absolutely. It’s about how we can make it work for us, and how we evolve through it. Rather than being exploited, we can empower our daughters through visual expression.