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The newly released Eye Mama: Poetic Truths of Home and Motherhood shines a light on mom photographers in the pandemic.
Mother of two Karni Arieli found herself like many of us did during the early pandemic days—juggling rising uncertainty alongside motherhood and her career (as a photographer, filmmaker, and curator). But the turbulence also brought inspiration, in the form of Eye Mama, a photography project in which she invited photographer mothers and other caregivers to submit images of what life and motherhood looked like through their lens.
Two years and nearly 50,000 submissions later, the ecstasy and agony of motherhood during the pandemic has been captured in the 200-image photo book Eye Mama: Poetic Truths of Home and Motherhood, published by teNeunes. While the images and photographers are intentionally varied, there is a common thread that brings them all together—something Karni calls the “Mama Gaze flavor.”
“What I’m looking for is truthful storytelling with very powerful photography that can make a difference and that can be funny and engaging and even fantastical. Because often the everyday can be fantastical and beauty can be found when you look close up at the details,” explains the U.K.-based talent. “There’s also a dark undercurrent that goes through motherhood—there’s the duality of the joy of being a mother, but the fear and sleeplessness and anxiety that comes with motherhood that leaves you on edge. I think sharing these truths is really crucial for empowering mothers and carers.”
Read our interview with Karni and get a sneak peek of the book right here!
How did Eye Mama project come to be?
"I think the seed idea was there in 2020 when I was home with my kids in lockdown. As a photographer and filmmaker, everything was shutting down and I was ill and I started documenting. I picked up the camera after I was getting better and started documenting my kids and my home and my surroundings. I think it was a coping mechanism and a way to digest what was going on in the world. Artists are lucky that way—we have that tool that we can use to empower us and definitely holding a camera can be a superpower."
"After I picked up the camera, I started telling my story just to myself. I wasn't sharing it with anyone, but I felt like it was giving me strength and connection to the situation I was in and sharing it just with my closest friends. On Instagram, I saw other women and photographers doing the same. I follow the female gaze, and I follow a lot of female photographers and artists like myself and I was just seeing them like peepholes all over the world. I was looking into their homes and seeing their motherhood and care and connection and hardships and struggles. And to me it was the most fascinating, most beautiful, most heartbreaking, most truthful thing in the world. And it was new to me. It was fresh, it was engaging, it was powerful. And I said to myself, how come nobody's ever collected these images? Why aren't there more books about the home and about motherhood? Why don't artists, mother photographers, ever publish a sort of portfolio that looks at our care and motherhood? Because often it's something unseen and unspoken about. We keep it to ourselves, and that means we're not really showing up as ourselves."
"So after that seed idea started to grow in my head, I started calling it Eye Mama and I pitched it to Alessia Glaviano, the head of Photo Vogue Global, and she thought it was a great idea. I started collecting all of the images on Instagram from 2021. I started with 10 mother photographers and asked them for permission and hashtags. Today we have something like 20,000 followers, 50,000 submissions from 50 countries and we're growing every day. I think it shows there's a big need for Mama Gaze."
Tell us about this term, Mama Gaze.
"I call it Mama Gaze now, the looking of mother photographers at home and family in the self-portrait. Women who identify as photographers and identify as mamas worldwide. It's become a bit of a visual movement over time. But it's taken three years from seed idea to book, which was published last month in the U.K., and this month in the U.S. and worldwide."
“For me, the Mama Gaze flavor is in the details, the imperfections, the dark and light, and truthful storytelling and self portraiture.”
How quickly did the submissions start coming in once you put the call out social media?
"Within a couple of months. It started growing very quickly because we were all at home, all the artists were home, and all the mothers were sharing. Women are very good at connecting and I would befriend a lot of these women via DMs and talk to them about their imagery. They connected over my imagery and I think once they saw the curation—my curation was very much about the things that were unseen, the light and dark, the imperfections, the connection, the dualities of motherhood and the personal truths, and all in a very serious photographic portfolio. Because I'm a Mama and a photographer."
"I think they realized that they were interested in this discussion and this narrative and wanted to be a part of it. So, once I could prove what the flavor was and show the quality of work, a lot of women came flooding in. I think within six months we already grew to quite a big movement and then it kept doubling itself. Now, two years since I started, we have around 50,000 submissions, and probably more now due to the Eye Mama project hashtag."
"I think it just proves there's a big need for it. When I made the project, I was looking for the book I was looking for as a mother and a photographer. And I think also mothers are in great need. Parents and carers are in great need. Especially in a pandemic. We need paid leave and we need equal pay, we need safe labor, we need childcare, we need considerate workplaces, and there's mental health issues. Physical issues and juggling issues. And so I think it just touches a nerve."
"Post pandemic, everyone was seeing all these women at home struggling and fathers and men and parents and carers. So the stories came out from there and were more obvious. Sharing these truths has become more of a trend as well. I think we get more empowered by seeing ourselves in others and in other people's stories. And we feel a little bit less alone like that. That's the power of community and sharing images."
Do you suggest only photographers submit images—and would it be considered self portraiture?
"It definitely is self portraiture by anyone who considers themselves a photographer. They can be established or beginners, but it's the quality of work that I'm looking for and I'm trying to level the playing field. So one of my rules that I allowed myself to break was not to go for only established photographers who had published a book or had exhibited loads before, but rather try and give a chance to newer photographers who didn't have a chance to promote themselves or be out there. Especially in the pandemic and in early motherhood days when your head is down to the wind and you're what I call 'in the forest,' where you can't often see your way out and you're not sure how to get through the day. I wanted to help promote these women as well."
"I was also mixing up the genres for two journalists with portrait, with fine art, and anyone who considers themselves a photographer. Anyone who considers themselves a Mama, as well. That can be IVF, abortion, miscarriage, adoption, foster, non-binary, of course, and trans. Single parents, all the narratives are included, and all the types of photographers. But they do have to be a professional photographer and they do have to be a Mama or carer of some kind, living with children."
How do you choose which submissions to promote?
"It comes down to the quality of work and I like to select it by the Mama Gaze flavor, which to me is the details, the imperfections, the dark and light, and truthful storytelling and self portraiture. That is, in the stories themselves, the unseen things that don't appear in social media and mainstream media. It's a very particular flavor, and it varies greatly from mother to mother. They each have their own stories, but in the overview they build this bigger puzzle and fill this bigger picture of the Mama narrative, which is telling our own stories of motherhood and care, but in a way that's visually pleasing with visual pleasure so that everyone can engage with it. I say motherhood isn't for mothers, it's for humanity because we're all children."
How did you see the themes and work submissions change over the course of the pandemic?
"In the early days of the pandemic, the content was a lot darker. Obviously, there was a lot of unknowns with our safety and wellbeing and mothers were juggling a lot. There was a lot of tricky times to handle, whether it was homeschooling and work or losing your job or not, having your family close by, or losing your childcare, or losing your sanity—or all of the above! There was a lot of dark content, and I actually found that very engaging. It's comforting to me to see women struggling in their visual content, because it was refreshing to see people share their realities. You feel part of a group and part of a collective when you feel seen and like everyone's human and everyone's struggling and not everyone is a mum influencer. An influencer wearing white and juggling apple pies and kids like it's no big deal—because it is a big deal."
"I think the content has become slightly lighter since lockdown ended. But again, I think what I'm drawn to is the dark and light and the duality. I don't want to go to the cutesy or very cozy or super happy fake imagery or mum influencer imagery, because that's already out there. And though I respect these women, it should come with a waiver that says this is fake or this is manipulated or this isn't real motherhood."
"What I'm really looking for is truthful storytelling with very powerful photography that can make a difference and that can be funny and engaging and even fantastical, because often the everyday can be fantastical and beauty can be found when you look close up at details. That's what I really believe. And there's like a dark undercurrent that goes through motherhood of this duality of this joy of being a mother, but this fear and sleeplessness and anxiety that comes with motherhood, and that's often not spoken about, that leaves you on edge. I think sharing those truths is really crucial for empowering mothers and carers these days."
Now that the Eye Mama book is out in the world—will the project keep chugging along per usual?
"Yes—per usual, accepting submissions, and publishing on social. But we're an unfunded platform. We've only been funded for the open call, which we did on Picta for the book. We were funded by MPB and we had another small funder by pick time. That means I was doing all the work solo up until the book, without any money coming in. I don't think I can really continue in the same format moving forward. I think reaching a book was really important to me because social media came with censorship and there's a lot of instability there and some trolling and other issues for mothers and motherhood sharing."
"I wanted the book to be a historical document that you could put on the shelf and a kid in 1,000 years could pick it up and look through, or a mother or husband or just a human could look through and say, wow, this was motherhood in 2020 or 2023. This is what it looked like. These are stories by women. The book was really crucial and I think to go back to being a social media platform, I'd love to do it. I'd love to make an Eye Mama too, and an Instagram platform and even an archive online that's ongoing. But I'd need to find a proper sponsor moving forward, so that we could do it properly with a team. And that's what we're looking at right now. And I'm hoping the book, people seeing the book, engaging with the book, will bring back interest and people who could collaborate with me on this collective vision that's really important and crucial now more than ever and giving it visibility and empowering it by sponsoring it. Maybe we can make an Eye Mama and Eye Papa archive and an ongoing Instagram platform and maybe website for this important visual movement."
What are your hopes for this book?
"I just want women to hold it, to look through it more carefully. Instagram is great for being democratic and sharing all these visuals that are equal, but I think that you have to look more deeply at images and close-up on bigger images to kind of get a feel for the stories in depth and read about them and look at them closely. Real visual projects have to become an exhibition ideally or a book—and we're hoping to do both. There's an exhibition now at the Royal Photographic Society till the end of August in the U.K. in Bristol, and the book can be held by kids and mothers and fathers. I hope it goes to workplaces, to doctors, to surgeries, to birth places, to homes around the world and that people can just flick through and pick it up by mistake in a lobby or from a bookshelf and say 'what's this?' and really just engage with it and feel an empathy and connect to a few of the images, if not all of the images, and be able to look at the story that's told by women and mothers worldwide. Historically, it's important to have this book out there and on a shelf."
“There’s a dark undercurrent that goes through motherhood. A duality of the joy of being a mother, and the fear and sleeplessness and anxiety that’s often not spoken about, that leaves you on edge.”
How would you describe this work, within the larger body of motherhood portrayed through art and photography?
"The Mama Gaze for me is the personal truths, the self portrait, the dark and light, the duality within motherhood of the hardships and the joy, not just one thing or the other. And it's a flavor of close-ups and of the fantasy and every day and all of those things that comprise the very specific flavor of Mama Gaze."
"If you want to know what it is exactly, you'll have to go and scroll through the Eye Mama Project, Instagram, and the Eye Mama book. I think that gives the best idea. Looking through the images is the best way I can describe it, because as I say, you know, if I was a person who worked with words, I would write a book, but I'm a person who works with visuals and I felt my calling was to collect and curate this body of work. I couldn't unsee it once I'd seen it and I felt it was my calling to make it and it came easily to me. The visual body of work does the talking for me in a way."
What's been the most satisfying part of the Eye Mama project for you?
"I think each stage was really satisfying. Creating the Instagram was really satisfying. Connecting with all the mothers, curating all the images, and then making the book and holding the book in my hand each had a magic moment. Curating the book was really magical, but also quite tough because I had to lose so many images with the process. I just go back to the imagery whenever I feel down or depressed or failed in some way. Because with any big project, obviously you've had many failures along the way. Many disheartening moments, many moments where you feel like it's not going anywhere or not succeeding. Or somebody doesn't do you a favor or does do you a favor or hurts you or doesn't hurt you. And you know there's going to be all of that on the long, big journey. So people shouldn't be fooled by Instagram."
"It wasn't that it just went from an idea to Eye Mama project to Eye Mama book. There were times when I was on the floor crying and feeling sorry for myself when things failed or didn't take off. And then times when it was amazing and everything took off, like when the book was signed off or when the book came out and when we got published in National Geographic or Vogue or Wall Street Journal. It's all a rollercoaster and really it's about holding on tight and just being completely under the influence. Drunk in love with the Mama Gaze, which I am and was."
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