Holding the Baby: Exhibition Review

Ruby Dixon’s review of ‘Holding the Baby’ highlights the beautiful storytelling of the complexities of motherhood.

In 2019, a United Nations report concluded that single parents have been affected the most by austerity measures in the UK. Inspired by this report and her own experiences as a single mother, photographer Polly Braden began a project to tell the stories and experiences of single parents in Bristol, London, and Liverpool. Working alongside journalist Sally Williams, who interviewed the families, Braden presents a moving series of photographs and stories of six single mothers and their children, inviting us to explore the individual narratives of their lives. 

As single parents, the situations that these women face are often difficult, yet the photographs and stories showcase the happiness and love that transcends this difficulty. Braden’s photographs are joyous, with smiles on the faces of the families illuminating the gallery. We see the pleasure that comes from the everyday activities of parents; reading a book before bed, going on a walk in the summer, picking their children up from school, and playing with them and their toys all become adventures of everyday life through the elation they bring. Many of the mothers also took the photos themselves with the assistance of Braden, giving the exhibition the feeling that we have all been invited into their lives to experience it with them. One of the most striking aspects of the photographs and stories was the resilience that they displayed; the mothers are seen to be using their creativity, ambition, and optimism to overcome so many of the obstacles that single mothers can face, especially in terms of economic hardships and societal judgements. 

Image from the exhibition

A powerful feature of the exhibition is the brief stories told by Williams, which seek to overcome the narratives, stereotypes and perceptions of single mothers that circulate in society, alongside the photographs taken by Braden and the mothers. We see that one mother, Jana, escaped an arranged marriage and is now a student at Imperial College London whilst looking after her two young children. In her photographs, we see how she balances these two differing aspects of life with an enormous feeling of pride. For Fran, a mother of two, leaving her husband was one of the most liberating things that she has ever done and the photographs of her and her family in nature reflect this feeling of freedom in their lives. Gemma experienced the ‘perfect’ nuclear family model with her three young children before her husband left her; she tells Williams how she never could have imagined that she would be a single mother, and her photographs take us on this new journey alongside her and her family. Carike’s husband also left her and, like Gemma, is on a new journey being a single mother to her young daughter. In a photograph of Carike playing with her daughter, the fun and joy that she is experiencing in this new life is conveyed with smiles brought on by a playful freedom.  

Image from the exhibition.

The exhibition also highlights some of the difficulties that single mothers face. Barbeline grew up in care and had her son at 18; he speaks about the housing difficulties that come with being a single parent. Because there are only two of them living in their flat, the council will only give them one bedroom, so she sleeps in the sitting room as her son is now too old to share a bed with her. For Barbeline, this sadness is reflected in the individual portraits of both her and her son. Braden and Williams also touch on the double standards that are brought upon single fathers in comparison to single mothers through the photographs and stories of Charmaine and Aaron, who are now separated with equal custody of their two children. They talk about how Charmaine is constantly judged for being a single mother, whilst Aaron is praised for just the act of seeing and spending time with his children. The separate photographs of both of them with their children show them doing similar things, yet we know that the reaction to that is entirely different.  

In accompaniment to the photography exhibition is a word collage by Claire-Louise Bennett, in which a larger group of single parents share their reflections on what their favourite thing in their home is. The different excerpts flowed as if they were spoken word poetry, demonstrating the importance of home and the things inside it. They were at times joyful whilst also mixed with feelings of melancholy and loss. The mothers spoke about how lonely being a single parent could be sometimes, and how sometimes they hoped for their ex-partner to come back. However, their homes and possessions remind them of the love, pride, and happiness that prevails in their lives. These emotive words were a perfect accompaniment to the moving photographs and stories that are told throughout the exhibition, highlighting the joy and strength of being a single mother. 

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