After photographer Ashlee Wells Jackson had her first child, she bounced back pretty quickly. But the second time she got pregnant — this time with twins — it was a very different story.
She faced a number of complications and lost one of her twin girls before giving birth. Ashlee's surviving baby was born premature and weighed less than two pounds. Between the loss of her baby, a cesarean birth and a few surgeries, Ashlee was left with both physical and emotional scars.
"I felt like less of a woman, I think is the best way to put it," she said on Take Two. "I felt like I had done something wrong and logically I knew that it was out of my hands, but it didn't stop those feelings."
She decided to work through those feelings by taking pictures of new mothers with their new babies. A series she calls the 4th Trimester Bodies Project. Wells Jackson joins the show to talk about her her work.
On photographing herself for this project:
"I didn't think it was fair to ask other people to participate in this project without first doing it myself, so the photo that kicked off the project is myself and my surviving twin daughter, Nova. We set up the shot, my husband helped make sure that everything was OK and did a little bit of a self-portrait, so the image is myself standing there, in my underwear, topless, nursing my daughter, very stark. And it shows my scar, which was one of the biggest things I was having trouble with and we put that out there and the project has really just exploded from there."
About the mothers and the photographs:
"To date, we are just around 150 images and it's really hard to pull examples because everybody's story is so amazing. One mother that stands out to me is a biological adoptive mother of nine. Her photo is her breastfeeding her youngest, which are twin girls. We have pictures of mother with very traditional presentations. You know, a normal pregnancy, a normal hospital birth, a normal baby at home, no hiccups along the way. And I absolutely love those images and those stories just as much as the ones that are a little more tragic or heartfelt."
On documenting the difficulties of motherhood:
"We have been able to capture breastfeeding struggles. One of our first pictures that deviated slightly from the concept we started with was this very stark torso kind-of-shot of a woman, sometimes with her face cropped out, so you're really focused on the body. One of the first images we deviated from that was a mother who was having a lot of breastfeeding struggles and she ended up sitting down on the floor in the middle of the session and I just kept shooting."
On capturing the beauty of postpartum bodies:
"People ask all the time how we find our models and how we get to that effortless photograph at the end of the day and we don't do any prescreening. We accept women, especially here in Chicago, as they come to us. In fact, we try not to learn much about them before they come into our studio. Once they arrive, we sit down and we talk with them. We spend a little bit of time. They're treated to hair and makeup, which isn't really essential to the project, but let's them be pampered a little bit. Disarms them, so to speak, and let us to get to know each other a little bit more."
On the "Stop Censoring Motherhood" message:
"I really do feel like motherhood is censored. I feel like we embrace pregnancy to a degree. Maternity photos are such the rage right now and everybody loves them and I think since Demi Moore stepped in front of the camera and created such controversy years ago, it has become a normal thing. But throughout the pregnancy process, and when it comes to the postpartum period and motherhood starts, we brush so much under the rug. We're told to bounce back, we're told that we're not allowed to be different, we're told that our babies are suddenly more important than we are. I always put my children first, but we are important and we are in a period then where we should celebrate what we just did."
Response from women photographed:
"I feel like women are always nervous. I don't think we have had anybody walk into our studio and take their clothes off and say, "Yeah! I'm excited about this!" But it's very transformative. We often see our women at the end of their sessions tear up as they look at their photos. We had clients not identify with the woman in the picture as the woman they see in the mirror simply because they see their picture as beautiful, but they have had different feelings about the way that they see themselves. We've seen that change shift further as they go out into the world and their friends and family see their pictures on our website or on their Facebook page."
On the response from others:
"It's been amazing and some of our more difficult stories, putting them online, and having comments come in and emails come in from women who haven't had a chance to shoot with us, but are viewing the project and following the project, them reaching out to us and saying, "That's my story, that's my body, I look exactly like that woman. Thank you." At the end of the day it is why this exists and is something that I hope continues."