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This Powerful Photo Series Shows The Truth Behind Breastfeeding

"If breastfeeding wasn't mostly done behind closed doors, we'd be more exposed to it and therefore more prepared."

Posted on July 15, 2020, at 3:08 p.m. ET

A mother breastfeeding
Sophie Harris-Taylor

"I love the closeness of it, the skin to skin. I love that I can cure almost any sadness or outburst by nursing her. Breastfeeding also gives me confidence that she gets all the nutrients, good bacteria, and antibodies she needs to stay at optimum health. Breastfeeding has also boosted my body confidence. I feel that my body is a superpower." —Anna

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.

Breast milk is squeezed into a bottle
Sophie Harris-Taylor

"My image of breastfeeding before I personally had done it, was one of oneness and serenity, something that was naturally unfolding majestically, like a rose blooming in the comfort of its own garden. Fast forward six months and multiple feeds since giving birth, I can truly say it's not so!" —Rosie

Right: a mother breastfeeding; left: a mother holds her baby
Sophie Harris-Taylor

Left: "Even when I don’t feel like magic, I am! Breastfeeding has shown me that." —Chaneen. Right: "When my milk sprays onto her face and she cries and won't latch on, or is too tired to latch on properly, I think that women in the West encounter more difficulties breastfeeding because we do these things in isolation, rather than in community. If breastfeeding wasn't mostly done behind closed doors, we'd be more exposed to it and therefore more prepared." —Nicole

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.

A baby puts a nipple shield in their mouth
Sophie Harris-Taylor

"For us it was really difficult at the beginning because Cosmo had a tongue tie that was diagnosed late. The only thing that enabled us was using a nipple shield. I felt ashamed to use one and was under the impression that their use was temporary and only as a last resort. Five months later, we're still using them and I'm so grateful for them as they are the thing that has actually made me able to breastfeed." —Bella

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.

A mother breastfeeds two babies
Sophie Harris-Taylor

"I am abundant. Free-flowing. All nourishing." —Chaneen

Breastmilk stored in bags
Sophie Harris-Taylor

"I like to know that what I’ve been eating — all the nutrients are now being passed on to her." —Elodie

A baby is held while breastfeeding
Sophie Harris-Taylor

"Nova had tongue-tie for the first eight weeks which made breastfeeding very tedious for me. He’d feed for very long periods and never seem satisfied afterward. I was constantly questioning my ability and supply as well as dealing with sore nipples, exhaustion, and overall discomfort. I built a negative relationship with the whole thing that is hard to break even though things are better after his tongue-tie surgery." —Thea

Babies breastfeeding
Sophie Harris-Taylor

Left: “Some people just don’t like the fact that I’m feeding my child and think that I should go hide away or just stay home, which I think is ridiculous, and I feel as though it should be embraced more in the public eye so it’s not seen as a problem.” —Elizabeth. Right: "I’m her greatest comfort. Everything can be wrong with the world but she can curl up on my lap and find a bit of calm." —Alice

A baby lies on their parent's legs
Sophie Harris-Taylor

"It would be great to be able to express more, it’s hard to find the time and a bit of a hassle with the constant sterilizing and then only getting 40ml at the time." —Elodie

Right: A mother pumps breast milk; left: A baby is held
Sophie Harris-Taylor

Left: "You can go to every lactation class, read every book, have super long, teat shaped, perfect nipples and it can still be bloody difficult. The feeling of failure that I couldn’t get breastfeeding to work and having to exclusively pump for three months. I made myself sick with bladder infections, mastitis, and nipple thrush. I really imagined myself as some earth mama that would breastfeed her baby until six months and beyond, I’ll probably always feel guilt that I wasn’t able to do that." —Lizzie. Right: “I enjoy the freeness of it. I can just feed wherever I am without a second thought, which I love” —Elizabeth

A baby's arm pushes against a woman's chest
Sophie Harris-Taylor

"The images of breastfeeding I have seen always show the baby lying peacefully in Mum's arms, feeding away serenely. Raya doesn’t feed like that. She always wants to be up and active and we often feed just a few sucks at a time, here and there, as she clambers over and around me, milk spraying over everything in the vicinity as she pulls away just as my milk lets down." —Aisha

A baby sits on a lap
Sophie Harris-Taylor

"The fact that I made every little squishy roll on her body! That it’s a secret thing between us that I can’t put in words to anyone else. That sometimes when she looks at me when she’s feeding it’s like the first time she’s seen me and that slow blink and smile is the best thing ever. I love that even if I haven’t packed a giant nappy bag, I can still feed her — it’s just the two of us." —Misli

A BuzzFeed News investigation, in partnership with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, based on thousands of documents the government didn't want you to see.