‘Mother’ by Elinor Carucci (Prestel, 2013).
Elinor Carucci is an acclaimed photographer whose previous subjects have included documenting the realities of married life Closer (2002) and her work as a dancer, Diary of a Dancer (2005). In Mother (2013), she showcases a collection of images which are her attempt to photograph ‘the complexity of motherhood as honestly as I could’ (p.5). Carucci argues that taking pictures of our families is done ‘as if we are consoling ourselves, counting our days in this world with our children.’ Joan Didion’s 2011 reflection on motherhood, Blue Nights, saw this issue as the central puzzle of parenthood: what it means to have children and what it means to let them go. We are invited into Carucci’s reckoning of this puzzle through her collection which begins with her pregnancy and the subsequent birth of her non-identical twins in August 2004. It concludes in 2012 when the children are around the age of eight. The collection draws to a close on a poignant note of loss, through an image depicting what Carruci terms ‘her empty belly.’
There is much in this book for those working in medical humanities. Whilst this is foremost a photographic study, Carucci provides a thoughtful and measured written Introduction and there is also a Foreword by Francine Prose. Carucci’s Introduction provides a note of context and explanation about the volume whilst still allowing the pictures to be the main focus of the book. Much of this Introduction concerns method and researchers will be interested in Carucci’s reflections on the relationship between herself as mother and herself as photographer. Often the focus of the photographs herself, Carucci blurs the distinction between subject and object and achieves a sense of genuine intimacy for the collection. The focus on the affective is also developed in the collection by Carucci’s inclusion of photographs of cherished moments between her children and herself and occasionally other family members. Whilst Carucci’s twins are heavily featured in the collection, the development of their childhood is eclipsed somewhat by Carucci’s focus on the role and identity of mother. The twins’ development can be traced in flashes, often milestones, such as the first adult tooth or a haircut. There is, then, less in this collection for those researching childhood.
However, Carucci’s presence in the images provokes the viewer or reader to consider important questions of positionality: where do we as researchers stand in relation to that which we study? In particular, scholars who work with ethnographic method will enjoy Carucci’s attention to this question in the Introduction, and her analysis of the ways in which roles which seem initially to conflict can eventually coexist productively. Fascinatingly, Carucci offers insight into her children’s reaction to being documented photographically. She reflects in the Introduction on the way in which the twins came to understand being photographed, having previously found it annoying or upsetting.
Carucci confronts us with a highly personal account of not only the quotidian, or day-to-day, existence of her family but also larger questions about female personhood and identity following the birth of children. Comparison of the two images below, the first a portrait of her daughter following a haircut and the second of Carucci aged thirty-eight holding a partially visible child illustrates well the range of themes and scales that this work addresses. This very personal and individual engagement with the topic of motherhood also chimes with an important train of thought in the medical humanities: that of the patient’s perspective. Roy Porter was the pioneer of histories from ‘the bottom up’ which used small-scale case studies of individual perspectives and experiences to examine bigger themes in the history of medicine. Carucci’s (auto)biographical approach uses the individual story of one woman as mother to engage with motherhood beyond the idealised image of Madonna and Child. Carucci notes in the Introduction that she intended to reveal the complexity and contradiction inherent in motherhood. Through this this deliberate juxtaposition of ideal and reality, the collection illustrates in a new and visual way the importance of the ‘patient’s perspective’. Documenting individual life worlds, whether in image or word, can tell us much about the cultural work carried out by the larger structures of social norm which surround lifecourse events such as childbearing and rearing.
There is, without question, a politics of motherhood. Mothers have been the target of social norms and expectations throughout history. We know from the rich vein of academic scholarship on motherhood and birth that it has been constructed and fashioned in particular guises across time to serve particular interests including imperial, class and professional power. Foucault’s writings on biopower have been especially influential in medical humanities, teaching us that the body and sexuality can be important pivots in relationships of power between individual and state. Work under the sign of medical humanities, for instance, has focused on the power and reach of biomedicine and its address of the pregnant body and birth. Whilst these discursive analyses illuminate the intentions of power or regulation, they can actually have the effect of evacuating the body (and women especially) from the histories of biomedicine, birth and motherhood.
The value of Carucci’s project, then, is its sustained engagement with the other side of discourse: the material realm. A photo essay is a particularly effective way of taking a countervailing perspective thanks to Carucci’s skill in using light and dark, form and texture to create meaning and emotion in her pictures. In her account, Carucci very skilfully transitions between the realms of the physical, medical and biological to the emotional and psychological. She includes pictures of her pregnant body (see Feeling me 2004’ below), the incision from her emergency caesarean section and a depiction of her maternal guilt in the form of her hand cradling her crying son’s face. This foregrounds the materiality of the body as the essence of motherhood and it is Mother’s most significant contribution. The collection fundamentally reorients our understanding of motherhood towards embodiment. Moreover, by investigating motherhood as something which is both socially constructed and materially experienced Carucci demonstrates the crucial link between social processes such as norm and ideal and individual response. For me, this is epitomised in the picture ‘Monday morning, mother of two 2010’ which sees Carucci running, carrying one child and followed by another.
For researchers, the importance of this collection lies in its contribution to our reading and understanding of the maternal body. It encourages the researcher to start the conversation between the two realms of the material and discursive. The collection also, crucially, encourages us to reconsider our research methods. Carucci forcefully demonstrates that by approaching a seemingly universal role such as motherhood from the perspective of the individual and doing so through the medium of image, we can achieve a valuable new perspective.
Reviewed by Dr Francesca Moore, Lecturer in Human Geography at Homerton College, University of Cambridge. Her research interests include the politics of motherhood in nineteenth-century Britain and cultures of abortion and alternative healing in industrial Lancashire. She is currently working on more contemporary themes including the histories and geographies of maternal mortality caused by unsafe abortion.
Correspondence to Dr Francesca Moore
- Carucci, Closer (San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2002)
- Carucci, Diary of a Dancer (Gottingen: SteidlMack, 2005)
- Didion, Blue Nights (London: Fourth Estate, 2011)
- Foucault, The Birth of Biopolitics: Lectures at the Collège De France, 1978-1979. Edited by Michel Senellart. Translated by Graham Burchell. (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 2008)