Mother & Child
Motherhood as seen by photographer Claiborne Swanson Frank
In her book Mother & Child, published by Assouline, the photographer Claiborne Swanson Frank explores the meaning of being a mother in the 21st century. Her portraits, together with the words of each of the women she photographed, strive to give tangible form to the invisible, yet unconditional, bond between a mother and her children.
How did you come up with the idea for this book?
Motherhood transformed my world. In many ways, I was a child until I had my own children. I never personally felt like a adult until I had my children and was forced to be responsible for the life, happiness and health of another human being. Motherhood forces you to grow up. My small reality of life and my own needs exploded with the birth of my first son. I suddenly felt a responsibility and purpose I had never known before. With my new insight, I felt inspired to tell a modern story of motherhood, to document and honour this profound human experience. My hope was to take portraits of mothers and their children that captured love and joy, to try to stop time in a series of portraits – and show how this experience connects us all. It’s one of the great commonalities of humanity.
How did you choose the mothers who took part in this project?
I chose mothers that inspired me. Mothers that are leaving their mark on the Earth as they contribute and create, all the while holding their role as a mother most high and important in their lives.
Is this book a way of celebrating women?
Absolutely. I set out to celebrate women in all my books.
After meeting all these mothers, was there a common denominator of motherhood that struck you?
Yes. I learned how truly universal and human this experience of motherhood is – how this love connects us all. I also had the revelation that families are our modern tribes. They give us purpose and shelter from the world. Our families define a part of who we are and who we want to be. I also learned how each mother is doing her very best to be the best parent she can be. Being a mother is the most important job we all have and we each only get one chance to do it right. I felt inspired by how important each mother found their role was as a mother and how deeply they want to raise loving, kind, thoughtful children.
You’re a fashion photographer and therefore quite accustomed to photographing women. Is taking photos of children different?
I’m a portrait photographer, I shoot fashion, but from a portrait and lifestyle point of view. My usual creative process did not work in a single one of the seventy shoots I did for this book... Before, my professional life had been focused on getting a perfect shot. I had quiet, peaceful sets; I picked the locations and styled the subjects. It was all about creating a deep intimacy and connection with my subject, and creating a space for a moment between us in a very controlled environment. And then, when I started photographing families for this book, all of that went out the window. In every shoot, there were moments of peace, moments of chaos, and everything in-between. It all seemed out of my control; there was no way to make sure the dress was perfect, to choreograph the moment, to control or pose a child. It challenged my process and formula deeply. At first, I’d leave a shoot and not know what I’d gotten, if I even had gotten anything usable. Then I’d get home and go through it all and discover these incredible moments. I’ve realized that the most beautiful moment is never the curated moment. I was basically re-learning how to be a photographer. I was forced to be very present,
and shoot in a freer and looser way, and to trust that the moment would appear and that I’d be able to document it. This creative evolution completely mirrored the evolution – and the growing pains – that I’d been experiencing as a mother.
How exactly did maternity change you?
I often felt tired and introverted, but pregnancy was a very creative time for me. I felt deeply grateful for this life growing inside of me – but there was that immediate revelation that neither my life nor my body was my own any longer. In many ways, pregnancy prepares you for the reality that your life no longer belongs to you alone, that it no longer revolves solely around your needs and wants.
Do you mean we lose our freedom and insouciance when we become a mother?
Yes I do. I missed my freedom in a real way after the birth of my first child, but I got used to it by the time my second son was born. Once you’re a mom for long enough, you forget what complete freedom feels like. It’s been years since I’ve slept without a baby monitor. I’d be lying if I didn’t say that there are days when I miss being free, or sleeping more than six hours. But I don’t feel resentful. With that loss of freedom came this transforming love, and I was ready for it. Becoming a mother allowed me to feel connected to life in a different way. My whole experience of being alive was redefined.
Is motherhood what you expected it to be?
I was told that the love between a mother and a child was unlike any other love. I think the greatest gift my children have shared with me is their love. I feel overwhelmed with gratitude that they have so much unconditional love for me and I for them. I never knew being a mom would be as much fun as it is and at the same time I had no idea how hard parenting can be. No one can teach you how to be a parent; you have to learn each day and find your own truth as to how you want to raise your children. Being a parent forces you to look at your life and the morals and values you want to install in your children. Parenting has forced me to evolve as a human being and being a mother has made me a better person. I don’t think I realized how much personal growth was necessary for parenting.
Did this awareness change your relationship with your own mother?
Yes , I think I understood for the first time what a hard job she had raising three girls. Once you have kids you finally understand your parents in a way you never could before.
Which woman do you think is the maternal figure par excellence?
I don’t believe there is a perfect mother... I think every mother has strengths and weaknesses. All we can do is give the best of our selves to our children, love our children with all we are and try to raise loving, kind human beings.
How would you describe motherhood in few words?
Pregnancy confirms the reality that from love you can create life – this truth blows my mind. It is one of the greatest miracles of life.