Blessing Day. All photos courtesy of Amanda Bentley James
This article originally appeared on VICE UK
Amanda James was 28 when her whole life changed. And frustratingly, it was in the most banal way possible: she became a mom. Having grown up in a Mormon community of Latter-Day Saints, she’d been anticipating having kids, and was kind of excited about the whole thing. Then her son, now five years old, was born.
She realized that motherhood, for all its joys and rewards, was really fucking difficult. So she picked up her camera and started taking photos of her surroundings in picturesque Utah, all blue skies and mountains looming over the home that she could barely leave because her baby was still too small to walk on his own.
When she first took the photos, while working towards a fine art Master’s degree, she didn’t think they would amount to much, let alone lead to her winning one of this year’s LensCulture portrait awards for her “Sweet Little Lies” series. Her pictures are on display this week in London, so I decided to give her a call. “I’m actually breastfeeding right now,” she said, as her month-old son gurgled from over the line. While she multi-tasked, we talked about taking creepy photos of your own kids, feeling guilty for finding downsides to motherhood, and the religious pressures of devoting yourself to your family.
VICE: Hi Amanda. From what I’ve understood, you didn’t set out to shoot a series specifically looking at motherhood in this way, right?
Amanda James Bentley: This project came out of my time in school, though before grad school I’d been doing more staged scenes and performance photography. I wanted to do something different, so I started shooting spontaneously at home, or walking down the street. I started photographing my home and my oldest son, who was about two, but there was something haunting in the pictures to me. I started exploring that.
Cutting Carrots. “Motherhood is very monotonous, and repetitive. Everyday feels the same with things like preparing meals, napping schedules, dishes, laundry, etc.”
What did you start to notice?
It was hard to look at the pictures in the beginning, because there was a darkness about them. I would put the pictures up and wonder, What is this about? Why are these pictures of my kids coming out… a little bit creepy? What is wrong with me? I love my kids, but why is this coming out like this? A lot of these pictures aren’t included in this series, but I found myself photographing this sharp, huge mountain outside my window over and over again.
And looking back, I was mourning my freedom. My freedom was gone. The second your firstborn comes, your freedom’s snatched from you overnight. It’s such a weird feeling, and I know all women experience it differently, but having a baby, for me, felt so scary. I’m a free spirit, so even committing to the stability of marriage or buying a house was hard for me [laughs]. I wasn’t scared at all until my baby came out, then there’s all this responsibility, this fear. I felt trapped.
It’s interesting you say that, because the photos have this lightness.
It’s conflicting, because once you have a child you have a love for them that’s crazy. But at the same time, my identity was snatched from me. I’m an identical twin, so I’ve had to share my identity my whole life.
I read that you had your sister pose in what looks like a self-portrait.
The picture of the girl on the green couch? That’s her. So I’ve grappled with identity my whole life, with sharing an identity with someone. I share a birthday, we look exactly the same, we married brothers. We share the same everything, so I’ve always not had my own identity, in a weird way. She’s a painter and I’m a photographer, which is the only thing that separates us. We live next door to each other [laughs]. But when I had a baby it was a like a completely different loss of identity, and your whole life is timewarped into being “just another mom.” It was so weird.
Woman. “This is a portrait I did of my twin sister to stand in for me as a self portrait. This photograph is a metaphor for the identity that was lost as I became a mother.”
At what point did you start to fold that weirdness into your work?
This series came out of a lot of frustration. I saw all the work my peers could put into their projects, and they were progressing really fast, but I just couldn’t put everything into it all the time. I couldn’t. And that frustration came out in the pictures. The critiques were really hard. I felt guilty for taking these pictures of my son, I felt a lot of shame. Like, ‘why is motherhood not good enough?’
Did you speak to your husband about it?
I really didn’t know what the project was about until I’d reflected on it a bit, so he understands. He’s really stable, and was cool with me photographing him a bunch too. But he’s not an artist so it’s harder for him to understand why I need to do this.
I know you were raised in a very religious household, too, where tradition took priority. Wouldn’t your project have slightly gone against what you were brought up to believe about a woman’s role?
I love my culture, my background, I love my religion but the culture of it is hard. Where I live, most women stay home and watch kids, and they love it. And I wondered what was wrong with me, I felt like I was going crazy just staying home.
How different is this community to the one from your childhood?
I grew up in Salt Lake, not far from here, so it’s similar. People here are so nice and I love that family’s top priority. I’ve always wanted to have kids—I came from a family of nine—so me having three kids is nothing. But after I started talking to moms, I found out a lot of women felt the way I did. There’s just that expected pressure put on women in religious communities, I guess. I love working, and it was hard for me that looking after the baby was automatically my job. I wanted to be a mom, but when the first was born I craved to work.
That’s why you brought the Bible scriptures in, from the Book of Genesis?
It felt like an unfairness. Like… why?
Had you noticed that gendered double standard when you were younger?
No, never. Reading Genesis—I’d never really read the Bible, I grew up hearing stories—the actual text felt so harsh. It just seemed kind of unfair for women. And really this project came out of the feminist photographers I’ve been into—people like Hannah Wilke, whose work I love—shooting my family, and relating it to where I come from. Now that my kids are older, I have help if I feel trapped but in those early years, you don’t even know what’s coming. It just happens. And there are a lot of conflicting feelings.
This interview has been condensed for clarity and length. Here are some more photos from the series.
Cursed. “In this scripture, Adam was cursed because of Eve. This seemed the perfect ending for the book ‘…for dust though art, and unto dust shalt thou return’. The beginning being life with my baby, and the ending being with death and returning to the ground.”
Creation. “There is a trail I like to walk on where you have to cross a log to get to the other side of a huge river. In the springtime, this river rages with lots of fresh water from the snow melting off of the mountains. I photographed it as a part of the creation of earth in my book.”
“I loved the vulnerability coupled with the tension in this photograph. A tender moment of a boy and his mother turns into more of a delicate fright of the little boy.”
God Formed Man. “I found the story of Adam and Eve so relatable to my life. I felt like an extension of my husband, at home working in the house and taking care of the children. I also felt like my identity was lost.”
“The delicate tension is what got me to take this picture. There is also something commanding with a mans hand holding something so delicate. It made me feel powerless, like I was the balloon.”
“I was watching my niece swim and she kept trying to hold her breath underwater. From this photograph it looks terrifying, of a little girl facedown in the water. It made me think of the fear I constantly have of something happening to my children. There is a constant nagging of fear attached to being a mother.”
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