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CHALLENGING THE 'YOUNG MOTHER' NARRATIVE

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Writer and photographer Jendella Benson's Young Motherhood project

Jendella Benson photographs young mums for a new project

Writer and photographer Jendella Benson has spent the past three years working on a project called Young Motherhood. She travelled across the UK photographing and interviewing women who had had children at an age considered ‘young’. She has exhibited the photography at the Houses of Parliament, and is currently working on a book and on editing the interviews for a film. She tells Lisa Williams about how the photos were shot, what inspired the project, and what she hopes it will achieve…

[Picture above is of Modupe with Samson]

THE PROJECT

What inspired you to start the Young Motherhood project?

I had the idea for the project because I have friends who are young mothers. I witnessed first hand the obstacles that they overcame to continue their education or to work and raise their children and I was frustrated because the narrative that is usually associated with women who choose to have children at a young age is always negative. There is the pervasive myth of the young woman who gets pregnant to get a council house and benefits, there are all kinds of assumptions made about their morality and their capability as parents, and the general consensus, held by everyone from healthcare professionals, to educators, to people in the community, is that the lives of these young women are ‘doomed’ in some way. …

Can you name any examples of 'young motherhood' in the media which are positive, and any which are negative?

The only time I see the term ‘young mothers’ or ‘young families’ used in a positive light is usually when talking about women and parents in their early thirties. The negative examples are almost endless. The days of the moral panic about teenage pregnancy are coming to an end now because statistics are showing that the rates are falling, but still I'm still contacted by production companies looking to cast for reality TV or poverty-porn-type documentaries featuring young mothers. They have a very clear idea of the kind of young woman they're looking for, and the kind of stories they want to tell, and are often looking to feed into the appetite created by MTV's 16 and Pregnant or Teen Mom, or shows like Benefits Street.

What is the breadth of the project?

I've interviewed women who are currently in their early twenties right up until mid-sixties, from the North West, the Midlands, the South East and even as far as Devon in the south. There are women from all different backgrounds and life experiences, there's no typical story.


Dee with Alexander and Jasmine
I think people really don’t like young parents for a lot of reasons, but most of it is economic.
 

What do you hope to achieve with it?

I wanted to create a project that would directly challenge all these narratives, and honour young mothers doing an amazing job in spite of all the negativity. I hope that the project contributes to changing the tone of the conversation about young mothers, as well as challenging individuals on a personal level about their perceptions and prejudice. The stereotypes that have stuck so fast actually impact the lives of these women in very concrete terms, such as how they were treated in hospital during labour, or even as they go about their business on the street.

Also, I wanted to create something that would inspire and encourage other women who may find themselves in similar positions, just to let them know that they aren't alone in what they're facing, and that they can overcome whatever obstacles they face, and create lives they can be proud of for themselves and their children.

THE PHOTOGRAPHY

Did you have any style references for the photography?

The main reference I had in mind was a sort of modern version of old Victorian family portraits. Those kind of portraits that became the aesthetic for respectable Victorian life.


Chantell with Siantae
I’m her first teacher, she looks up to me and I love it because it challenges me to be a better person in myself. She’s a really good girl.

 

What equipment did you use to shoot them and why?

Because I did not drive at the time, I was travelling on public transport so I had to keep my kit quite light and basic. I just used one softbox to light them, and shot with my DSLR, a Canon 5D Mk 3.

Was the setting important and why?

I wanted to photograph them in a setting where they felt pretty comfortable so that that would come across in their portraits. It didn't necessarily matter where, just as long as it was an environment that they felt comfortable in. Most of the portraits were shot in the women's homes, a few were shot outdoors.


Lucy with Alfie
Looking back now, I did it on purpose. I didn’t understand that was what I was doing at the time.

 

Were there ever any strange obstacles to getting the shot?

Working with the younger children was quite a challenge, but fun at the same time. With one of my friends, her daughter kept walking in and out of the shot while we were interviewing, interrupting to complain about a hole in her tights and the like. Her interview took over an hour because her daughter didn't want to miss out on the action. Anther friend's interview has just the top of her son's head bobbing in and out of shot. It was all quite cute really.…

How did you choose to compose the photos and why?

It was again based on the idea of a formal family portrait, that wasn't so formal and severe. I wanted a bit of the family's personality to come through, especially with the kids. So often,  when photographers document teen pregnancy, it's all very bleak and quietly tragic. That's obviously done to fit with the preconceptions that the photographer or perhaps commissioning editor or stock library want, because we have this idea that this is a terribly tragic thing. I wanted to avoid that as much as possible, and to have the women looking comfortable, while keeping a light reference to formal family portraits.

I purposely chose to leave the fathers out of the project. So much of the judgement and stigma is worn by these women, so I wanted them to absorb all the glory as such. This was about them, not whether they were a single parent or not, whether they got married or not, or whether they stayed with the father of their children. Those are often the questions that are asked, and I find it frustrating that the only redeeming factor people will consider is her proximity to a man.


Amy, with Amanda
I went to university, but I was just a few years behind my peers who went at the traditional age.
 

What kind of work did you do in the edit?

Mainly around colour and emphasising the lighting to make the families take prominence over their background. I let the women who took part choose the images their preferred when they asked to. I wanted to represent them in a way that they would be happy with, and as I sent each of them a physical print of their portrait as well, I wanted them to have a portrait that they'd love.


Sabrina, with Jordan and Shade
When I was seventeen I felt that I was really looked down upon, and I think I’ve turned out to be quite a good mum.
 

THE LEARNINGS

What has the experience taught you about young motherhood and what would you like the subjects and the audience to get out if it?

One woman remarked to me that it was a bit like therapy because when you're pregnant at a young age you don't really have time to think about what is happening, you're just dealing with it, so she actually enjoyed having a bit of time to reflect. All of the women who agreed to do it did it because they were sick of the media's misrepresentation about them. As for the audience, I hope it challenges them on a personal level in terms of how they interact with women in their communities, as well as hopefully getting through to some people who help shape policy that affects the lives of young mothers and their children.

I've learned a lot about motherhood in general from talking to the women, as well as specific things such as the role that relationships play, as well as sex education. I've learned that so much of the time young mothers are spoken about in financial terms, such as ‘the cost to the taxpayer’, but what most young mothers, in fact most mothers in general, need more than anything is a supportive community in which to raise their children. Community and support is underrated in terms of how important it is.


Angella, with Isaiah, Talitha and Gabriel
We made our decision that whatever challenges come, we have to take them head on.

 

 


Emily with Luke
I got more confident as a woman and I definitely felt the transition between being a teenager and being an adult.
 

 


Sophie, with William
Not only did I have my family, I had the help from Connexions, I had a specific midwife that was trained to deal with teenage pregnancies


Jendella Benson

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Comments

Ben Tantrum
Beautiful photos. Really powerful stuff.