For many new mothers, breastfeeding can be as rewarding an experience as it is a daunting challenge. While studies have shown that breastmilk can aid in developing stronger immunities in babies and provide optimal nutrition for newborns, the act of breastfeeding is often met with stigma in many places around the world.
Breastfeeding can also be physically and psychologically demanding — for new mothers who are unable to breastfeed their babies, it can be a source of anxiety and feelings of inadequacy. In the US, where breasts have been sexualized through generations of advertising and consumerism, breastfeeding in a public space can also be the subject of disgust and scorn. What is perhaps one of the most elemental acts of motherhood is often considered taboo in both the US and the UK.
In an effort to help dissolve some of the stigma and misconceptions surrounding the topic, London-based photographer Sophie Harris-Taylor created Milk, a series of intimate photographs and interviews with new mothers about their experiences with breastfeeding. Here, Harris-Taylor shares with BuzzFeed News a selection of pictures from Milk and discusses where the project began for her.
What inspired Milk and where did the project begin for you?
Becoming a mother for the first time, I was completely taken back by how much of a minefield breastfeeding is. While experiencing complications myself, it made me want to open up the conversation surrounding the subject and try and show something a little more realistic than perhaps what we are used to. This stage of motherhood is an emotional roller coaster, and I guess I wanted to reveal some of that and explore the range of emotions in both mothers and their babies.
What are some of the stigmas that your work acknowledges?
I think breastfeeding is seen differently all over the world, even between different regions of the UK, so I wouldn’t want to generalize too much about how it’s seen. But it does seem to remain somewhat taboo. For a lot of people, and not just men, they find it kind of gross. I guess women’s breasts have become so sexualized, that actually what they are originally for has almost been forgotten.
I think the media are broadly pro-breastfeeding, but they tend not to acknowledge the intricacies and realities of it. When we do see breastfeeding in the media, it tends to be somewhat shielded. Also a lot of the discussion tends to be about breastfeeding in public, which is important, but there’s so much other stuff that doesn’t get a look in. I think the "breast is best" debate is far too simplistic and binary — the reality for a lot of women is much more nuanced.
How do you meet your subjects?
For a lot of my personal projects, I use social media, putting our casting calls and also messaging people who are already speaking about the subjects I’m focusing on. Often I feel like I’m hitting my head against a brick wall, but sooner or later finding the first few subjects and carrying out initial shoots means I can start sharing images which draw more people in.
These pictures feel so natural, unposed, and sincerely intimate — can you talk a bit about your shooting process and walk us through a photo shoot?
I usually end up shooting most of my subjects in their own home. This tends to give the images a bit more context, but also massively puts the subjects at ease — they’re on their own beds, their own sofas, so in some ways it is completely natural. I’ll always get to know my subjects a bit before picking up my camera. The themes of my projects tend to be pretty personal so we’ll often connect in some way on this.
Each shoot was completely different. It’s not something I could really plan out. The babies themselves all have their own way of feeding and I just went with the flow. Some of the mothers were perhaps a little more reserved and nervous and some more open and confident. So it was a different process for all in some ways. For most of the shoots, I actually had my baby in the room too — I think this kind of helped build that rapport with the mothers.
There’s also that distraction there for the mothers. They’ve actually got something more important to do in the feeding, rather than sitting there worrying about their pose and expression like a subject often might.
What was one thing you took away from this body of work that was entirely unexpected?
That I wasn’t alone in my experience.
Do you plan on continuing this project in some capacity?
I’m currently speaking with one of the London hospitals about having the work on show in their labor ward— this would be amazing to take the work out of the art and photography world and place it back where it feels most prominent.
What do you ultimately hope people will take away from these images?
Of course, this isn’t a guide to breastfeeding in any way, but I hope that women who have breastfed, or in particular are currently breastfeeding, can realize they aren’t alone. I hope that people understand that breastfeeding is a minefield that for many brings up lots of emotions, both positive and negative. For anyone seeing the series, I really hope it gives people a slightly more rounded understanding of the ins and outs of it all.