Sophie Harris-Taylor captures something we often try so hard to hide: our vulnerability. As mothers, we’re supposed to be strong and powerful, yet what is often overlooked is that our transition into becoming a mother is the most vulnerable period of our lives...
“I think we’re often afraid to show our vulnerabilities,” agrees London-based Harris-Taylor. “Perhaps we think by showing this side people are going to judge and only see weakness. Where actually I think there’s something incredibly powerful and strong about being openly vulnerable. I’m in awe of the people I photograph, its often about striking the balance between confidence and vulnerability. I’ve found my work to be a very therapeutic experience, it took me a while to open up myself, but by doing this it has allowed my subjects to open up and engage in an honest conversation.”
Her latest project is MILK, a raw and powerful series which captures both the beauty and the heartache of breastfeeding. “Before having my son, I, like many other women, had an idealised but perhaps unrealistic expectation of breastfeeding,” says Harris-Taylor. The images I’d seen tended to represent breastfeeding in quite a generic and non-informative way. I wanted to open up the conversation – not for or against, simply more honest. Letting mums share their story in the comfort of their homes, I hope it can give others who choose to breastfeed something to connect with and to feel a little more understood. With so much more open and honest discussion around the role of women’s bodies at the moment, now feels like the right time to discuss one of its most basic functions in a truthful and refreshing way.”
Here, we find out more about her meaningful work and the stories behind these powerful images.
Go to sophieharristaylor.com
You’ve said: “I think most importantly that looks don’t define who you are, and in the end don’t really matter.” Why do some of us take so long to come to this realisation? And tell me your thoughts on beauty and how it led you to create Epidermis?
I think when we’re younger we get so caught up on our looks, perhaps before we know where we’re headed in life, it can seem like the be-all and end-all. And sometimes it comes from a place where you just want to fit in. And perhaps it just comes from life experience that you start to realise other things matter more.
It sounds cliché but beauty is of course so subjective yet in the mainstream media we are often not exposed to this kind of diversity. Epidermis for me was a way of showcasing beautiful women in skins less often seen. Most of my personal projects seem to come from my own life experiences and throughout there is always some element of my own vulnerability – I began to reflect on my own past and feelings towards my skin, I’d suffered from severe acne. Back then, there were no idols, role models and people to look up to who had anything but flawless skin. Which obviously meant I struggled with my own self-image. We’ve come a long way since then, what with body positivity and generally people speaking out about beauty standards and promoting diversity. However, I still felt that there was a lack in representing skin in an honest and open way.
Your work captures a character’s vulnerabilities – why do you think we sometimes hide our vulnerabilities and what have you learnt about being vulnerable through your work?
I think we’re often afraid to show our vulnerabilities. Perhaps we think by showing this side people are going to judge and only see weakness. Where actually I think there’s something incredibly powerful and strong about being openly vulnerable. I’m in awe of the people I photograph, its often about striking the balance between confidence and vulnerability. I’ve found my work to be a very therapeutic experience, it took me a while to open up myself, but by doing this it has allowed my subjects to open up and engage in an honest conversation.
For your series Sisters, you photographed and interviewed over 70 sets of sisters, of all ages and backgrounds – and have said that it was a way of reflecting on the difficulties of her own relationship with her sister. Can you describe this relationship?
At the time I created the work, there wasn’t much of a relationship there if I’m honest, we’d not really been able to see past our teenage years and sisterly disputes. Since then we’ve started to rebuild our relationship as adults. I think I tried to understand a bit more about the complexities of sisterhood and the journeys of this kind of lifelong relationship.
You’ve described mastitis as more painful than childbirth – tell us about your experience with breastfeeding?
Yes looking back I really did! It was very much a love/hate relationship. In some ways I was lucky, my son latched on quickly in the hospital and fed well. But getting mastitis early on meant it became very difficult and painful to feed him at times. I seemed to always be overproducing which led to the ducts becoming completely blocked and then getting infected. The pain combined with sleep deprivation was pretty exhausting. My son used the breast as a comfort a lot so for months I felt like he was completely attached to me, but never that full. I started mixed feeding after about 4 or 5 months.. this helped him sleep through the night. Once he started weening there wasn’t much milk left and in one breast my supply had pretty much dried up all together. As soon as I stopped, I missed it.
How would you describe the intimacy or closeness of breastfeeding and how did it make you feel?
It’s pretty magical. I loved the intimacy, the comfort it gave him which in turn it gave me.
There’s sometimes a longing for personal space, as mothers feel they have a baby constantly attached to them. Did you ever feel this?
Absolutely I felt constantly clinged too. Being pulled and tugged whilst covered in milk really did make me long for personal space. Then again, I felt this huge guilt, because I’d met so many mums that couldn’t for various reasons breastfeed and there I was complaining about it.
You’ve always had a complicated relationship with your body. Can you tell me about this relationship – and how did breastfeeding change the way you felt about your body?
Having had an eating disorder since my early teens, it’s been an ongoing battle really. I don’t know if breastfeeding really changed the way I felt towards by body but certainly postpartum I was desperate to get back to my old body. And having never had large breasts before, this made me feel pretty uncomfortable, physically and mentally, and it was weirdly unfamiliar.
You felt lost after you gave birth – can you take us back to this period of your life and how you felt?
I did, I think because you’ve got this new identity suddenly as a ‘new mum’ and your life as what you knew it has completely changed overnight. But you know deep down, you’re still you and your identity hasn’t really changed at all. Don’t get me wrong, I actually loved becoming a mum, but I found the day to day, the monotony of it all at the very beginning pretty boring. My friends were working, and I felt in some ways a bit bored and not that stimulated. When I started to make work again felt like I got a bit more of myself back.
What were some of the most vivid memories you have of shooting MILK?
Zenon my son, was there for most of my shoots. This was in some ways really fun and a real bonding experiences between me and the Mum. But looking back a complete nightmare. Logistically. At the beginning when I started shooting, he couldn’t even sit up by himself so he’d often be just out of shot, lying on the bed next to the other Mum feeding. Then towards the end, he was running all over the place, pretty much destroying the house..
What messages do you hope women will take away from MILK?
It’d be nice for other women, to feel they can relate to the images and experiences of the other mums a bit more, than the typical nursing Madonna-like images we are used to seeing. For a lot of people and not just men, they find it kind of gross. Even though we’ve all seen a cow being milked, I guess women’s breasts have become so sexualised, that actually what they are originally for has almost been forgotten. I think the more we talk about these things and make them more publicly seen, the less taboo they become. At least, that’s the hope.