A New Book Of Photographs Captures The Motherhood Experience As We’ve Always Wanted To See It
“I didn’t want it to be a depressing book and I didn’t want it to be a lighthearted book because neither would be the truth.”
“Women are often put down for being emotional; for being oversharers or overbearing or very empathetic to others,” Karni Arieli mused with me on Zoom a few weeks ago. “And in a way, Eye Mama is my coming to terms with that in myself and wanting to encourage it in others — to share connectivity and empathy and those feelings that are nearly too much to bear.”
We’re meeting to discuss the launch of her new book, Eye Mama: Poetic Truths of Home and Motherhood, published by teNeues, and within about three minutes I am laughing and dabbing my eyes. “We're quite emotional beings,” Arieli says, but it’s clear that she says it from a place of strength.
“Women are so good at actually using that empathy, and what we sometimes think of as a weakness, or that society thinks of as a hindrance,” she says. “Once we use that for power and to empower others, it really flips the narrative.” It’s what she has been working tirelessly to elevate through her work with Eye Mama.
A BAFTA-nominated filmmaker and photographer, Arieli lives in England with her partner and two sons. Her boys are 9 and 17 this month but were 5 and 15 when the pandemic started. It was in those terrifying early days — during England’s first lockdown — that Arieli launched the Eye Mama account as a way to shed light on the experiences of motherhood and home around the world, as seen through what Arieli refers to as the “mama gaze.”
We first connected back in January of 2022 to discuss Instagram’s censorship of the account, and spoke again that March about the account’s shift toward a plea for peace in Ukraine. At the time, Arieli was thrilled to share that Eye Mama had received more than 22,000 submissions, and comprised over 2,000 images representing mothers and their families in 30 countries. Since then, it’s grown. A lot. To date, more than 50,000 images have been submitted by photographers who identify as mothers, with about 3,000 featured on the account. And now — the book, which Arieli delights at being able to hold in her hand.
“I must be really old-fashioned, because the fact that I can do this…,” she says, hefting up her copy and turning some of the pages. “There’s something about putting it in a book — it makes it more real. It makes it so that Instagram can't just delete all your work or something.”
And I imagined it like this kind of... visually, to me it looked like a spiderweb all lit up with sparkles of dew at night — this spiderweb of connection worldwide, which is I guess the internet and social media — and all these women were sharing these stories with me and I was sharing with them, this vulnerability and this connection.
The book, which launches in the U.K. this month and in the U.S. in June, features images from mothers all around the world, accomplished photographers and novices alike. There are very few words overall, and no descriptions to accompany the images — a deliberate choice, says Arieli. “Photography is languageless, photography is global, and it’s understood by everyone, from babies to old people worldwide. Once you put text in there, you’re starting to say, ‘This is only for people who know English. This is only for people who can read. This is only for people who understand what this one person is saying about this reality.’ And by sharing actually just the mama gaze, pure, you are using this global language of visual pleasure and photography and art, which anyone can tap into.”
For the impossible task of choosing the final 228 images, Arieli brought together a jury of nine women whose eye, she says, she really respects. The final result is stunning. A deeply moving visual feast, each image capturing the most recognizably intimate, the most fraught, the most gorgeously humdrum moment in the life of a mother, a family, a home.
“I've spent three years with this work and so I feel very, very attached to it and proud of it, but also a little nervous of it going out into the world,” says Arieli. “Because now, it’s pretty much like a birth. Really the metaphor is so much there, because you put everything into it, you’ve done your work, there’s nothing more you can do. You birth it and you send it out, like you send your kids out later on into the world. You’ve done your best with it and you hope that that time and energy and effort and love that you put into it is felt and resonates throughout the book.”
Below is more of our conversation about the project, the book, the exquisite darkness inherent in motherhood, and the power of empathy.
April Daniels Hussar: I loved what Vogue Italia's Alessia Galviano writes in the introduction — that this is first and foremost a book about love. Love especially was so poignantly needed when you launched Eye Mama, the Instagram project, in those really scary early days of the pandemic. That need for love and connection: has it changed at all? Is it different now?
Karni Arieli: All the pandemic did was highlight something that was already super problematic. I think mothers have been lonely for a long time. Mothers have been struggling for a long time. As long as you don’t have free child care, paid leave; you’re not in charge of your own body, you don’t have flexible hours at work, you can’t get help and sleep, you don’t have a tribe, you don’t have your own mother near you... you’re going to have so many struggles. Before the pandemic, society wasn’t really looking closely enough to say, “Wow, we are building all these empires on the backbone of the care that other people are giving for free.” For free.
So it’s needed now, needed before, needed in the pandemic. But I think Eye Mama was better off launching in the pandemic — what was special about it was we were all in this dark, scary place, and we connected quietly at night through breastfeeding and sharing stories with kids. And I imagined it like this kind of... visually, to me it looked like a spiderweb all lit up with sparkles of dew at night — this spiderweb of connection worldwide, which is I guess the internet and social media — and all these women were sharing these stories with me and I was sharing with them, this vulnerability and this connection.
Once it gets big, it’s harder. But I made friends and I shared stories. And I think by seeing yourself in others, it makes you feel better about yourself. And I also realized that sharing happy fake images doesn’t make you happy. I think in the end we’re looking for that humanity in everyone.
ADH: I’m so interested in the theme of loneliness because I think there’s this real misconception that mothers are not lonely, or that they shouldn’t be lonely, or that having a kid will make you less lonely. And I feel like in some ways it’s kind of the opposite.
KA: That intense care, that intense fatigue, and you losing yourself for a while, not knowing who you are, not having the energy... Rachel Yoder says it really well in her book Nightbitch, which I adore, and I quoted her at the back of the book — the clash of the artist and the mother, the clash of the working woman becoming the mother, where suddenly you’re meant to give up every ambition, every identity, everything you’ve ever been, throw it all in the bin and become the all-consuming Madonna: loving, giving, selfless, cozy, best mother on God’s earth to this tiny baby who you’ve just met. And obviously just like Hollywood sells love stories, this is a fantastical story people have been selling us.
I married my partner, we both co-direct, we both work, we’re both equal. And suddenly you have a baby and you’re thrown back to the 1960s because somebody has to breastfeed, somebody has to give the bottle, somebody has to hold the thought, paid leave is limited. You suddenly realize you can never be the same again. This is a departure and you are a new self. And I love my kids to bits and I love who I’ve become as a mom and none of the work I’ve made would’ve been here without them, but it’s been so hard at times. I’ve had so many nights where I was on the floor crying my eyes out, not knowing exactly how to juggle it.
ADH: And they can’t save us from being lonely because their childhood is temporary.
KA: And they’re not really there for that, in a way…
ADH: No, they shouldn’t be. When you look at the book now, what do you see?
KA: I think I’m still digesting! I’ve only got one copy. I keep touching it. I keep touching the gold as if it’s a bible, as if I’m a religious person when they kiss a religious book. It’s been so epic for me — personally, emotionally, physically — pulling this off. And obviously all the work in here I love deeply, by these talented, amazing women. So I’m really proud and happy, and I feel privileged to showcase it because it’s a collective vision. It’s not my work, it’s everybody’s work and it’s their book too. But pulling it off has been a huge thing. I feel a big relief and joy to actually have made it this far because just like any big project, it nearly, a few times, didn’t happen.
I’m quite glad to hold it. And I feel like if it makes a small difference long term, if in a hundred, 200, 1,000 years from now some kid picks up this book from the bookshelf and has a flick through, or it changes some perception, or gets people more empathetic to motherhood on some level. And obviously we need a lot more work and a lot more books like this. But even if it does a small bit, then I’ll be really happy about that.
ADH: Earlier when we were chatting, you said that this book was just sitting there waiting to be made. What do you mean by that?
KA: Well, all the images were there. All these mothers were taking photographs with or without me. It just needed that person who would notice it. [A few years ago] I was saying to my partner, “There’s no low-hanging fruit anymore. Everything’s been discovered. Everything’s been found. Especially in the art world, everything’s been done.” And then I look around and I see motherhood and I’m trying to remember if there are any books I’ve missed or overlooked on motherhood, or by photographers as a self-portrait on motherhood. And there just wasn’t. They just don’t exist.
I didn’t want it to be a depressing book and I didn’t want it to be a lighthearted book because neither would be the truth.
There’s one collective vision of something similar called Home Truths, which was done in 2013 by a curator, Susan Bright. And that’s got 13 or so photographers, but very well-established, very big photographers. And it’s more of a historical document on motherhood with a lot of writing. It came with an exhibition, and it’s incredible, but it hasn’t got this scope and it also hasn’t got this leveling of the playing field. I let women who are very established and very unknown — as long as they were all photographers — join the party and show their work and be featured in the book.
So in that sense, I think what I feel was that literally scrolling through my feed in lockdown, I was seeing this book. It was there. It just had to be pieced together, and someone insane enough as myself had to bang on and on about it until somebody would fund it. That’s obviously the tough part, making other people see it, too.
ADH: It seems like the process between selling the book idea and it being created went so quickly.
KA: Six months, it was done! But I worked day to night; worked nonstop and I had a small team: two graphic designers and one producer, and one producer on the teNeues side. The thing is I already had it in my head. When you have something in your head and you can see it, then you just have to fill in the puzzle pieces. Then you’re just connecting the dots. How do I get the women from Instagram to send me their high-res images? How do I curate it so that I do the best job that I can? How do I do it fast and with no money?
It was like a bit of a puzzle, but I had to do it. It was like a calling. I was just on fire and just had to let everything else just not be my top priority at that time. Let’s say my motherhood went down the drain a little bit.
ADH: How did you decide which images to include?
KA: We got 4,000 photographs from the open call and we had to narrow it down to around 150 images, but first I wanted them to narrow it down to around a thousand images. So what we did with the jury is they gave me their top favorites and we got to, I can’t remember exactly, like 600 of their favorites and my favorites too. I also added the ones that were particular favorites of mine, even if they didn’t get a majority. Then it was more a case of figuring out what narratives need to be seen and what pairs go together. So I had to get IVF in there, single moms, same-sex couples, abortion, miscarriage, fostering, adoption...
And all also to get the mood right. I didn’t want it to be a depressing book and I didn’t want it to be a lighthearted book because neither would be the truth. I wanted it to have the duality that we feel as mothers and thinkers. There’s quite a lot of darkness and undercurrents and truth in there that I haven’t seen before — that most people haven’t. To show the unseen, to show things that have just never been collected in one place.
ADH: Tell me about the sections of the book — “morning,” “noon,” etc.
KA: Most book publications say to you, “You have to curate it by theme, like love, connection, or ‘in the home, out the home.’” I actually really dislike that in photo books because I think it slightly talks down to your viewers. If you give a title, you’re doing the opposite of what this book is trying to do, which is ask questions rather than give answers. Show truths rather than tell you what you’re meant to think or feel. I just want you to feel anything. I don’t care what you feel, really, I just want to make anyone feel anything.
The witching hour is my personal nemesis.
It came to me on the spot, but I decided to do the times of day. Because care is 24 hours.
ADH: The day of a mother encompasses worlds, especially when your kids are younger. From 6 a.m. to 10 a.m can feel like a hundred hours. And then the witching hour is another whole journey!
KA: The witching hour is my personal nemesis. I put the witching hour in there to confront them, my worst nightmares, and say, “Now I put you in a book!” Because in a way, this is the book that I needed myself. I made a book for myself, really. I am a struggling mother artist-creative, trying to figure out how the hell we do this every day.
Because every minute that we live through is in the past, already in the decisive moment. That’s why photography is amazing.
ADH: It is.
KA: It encompasses and keeps forever, encases this moment so that you can have it like a crystal ball. You can just take it and have a little look. A lot of people turn to photography, or to little things that you keep, little mementos. Because in a way it’s like a trigger to send you back in time to those moments.
But of course what I sometimes wish, and it’s an impossibility, is to have an outside view or a bird’s eye view in the moment, knowing in time that you’re going to miss that time would be so precious because then you’d treasure it more and notice it more and be less cranky. But it’s impossible. It’s an impossibility because in the moment you are dealing with the moment, you’re not reflecting on it and it’s the reflection that makes you sad and happy.
Eye Mama: Poetic Truths of Home and Motherhood is available now in the U.K. and for preorder in the U.S.