4th Trimester Bodies tour makes its way to Pittsburgh
Ashlee Wells Jackson is using her camera to show the world what motherhood really looks like.
Jackson and her team are traveling the world photographing mothers and recording their stories in an attempt to empower women and challenge societal expectations. The 4th Trimester Bodies Project tour will come to Pittsburgh from July 8 through 10. (Pittsburgh photo sessions are already filled.)
“There is this pressure to look like what motherhood is supposed to look like,” Jackson says. “We need to acknowledge that we don't have to fit a mold.”
Jackson's portraits feature moms, with or without their children, posing in simple black undergarments. The images, accompanied by each woman's story, appear on the project's website, 4thtrimesterbodies.com. The first in a series of three books is set to publish Sept. 1.
Jackson is a Chicago-based photographer who specialized in pinup work, which gave her a firsthand glimpse into a shared self-consciousness so many women feel.
“Every day, I worked with regular women who were absolutely beautiful, but tremendously broken,” she writes on the project's website. “They didn't just want an experience and timeless photos of themselves; they wanted me to nip and tuck them into post-perfection.”
Jackson is a mother, too, of Xavier, 9, Nova Emery, 2, and her twin sister Aurora Eisley, who was stillborn because of complications from Twin to Twin Transfusion Syndrome. TTTS occurs when the blood supply of one twin moves to the other through the shared placenta.
The experience left Jackson feeling “like a failure. Like less of a woman. Like less of a mother.”
She writes: “Suddenly, I realized that I identified with all of those women that entered my studio. I was one of them. I avoided my midsection at all costs, I couldn't look at my scar, let alone touch it. I cried in the shower. I cried when my husband tried to touch me. I was broken, and I wasn't OK with it.”
Five months after Nova came home from the NICU in June 2013, Jackson held her daughter and took a self-portrait.
“I captured with one image the year of hell, sacrifice, loss — and now hope and healing — we had been through,” she writes. “This project has grown organically from there.”
In each city they visit, Jackson and makeup artist/hairstylist Laura Weetzie Wilson set up shop in a private location and meet the women who have registered for a session. They're welcome to bring their children, partners or friends — anything that will help them feel comfortable.
“Every woman who walks in the door is nervous,” Jackson says. “Some are gung ho and proud and want to scream to the world. Some feel really horrible about themselves and want to take the first step toward feeling better.”
The women get their hair and makeup professionally done, which serves as a time to feel pampered and time for the team to get to know them better. Then, still fully clothed, they record a video interview.
“I hear all the time, ‘I've never told anybody this before,' ” Jackson says. “It's not always birth stories. Some start back at their childhood and share the triumphs and struggles every step of the way.”
At this point, any nervousness has “melted away,” Jackson says. The women undress, and the actual shoot goes very quickly. Afterward, the subjects choose the images they want to show the world.
“We want them to be the one who is empowered, saying, ‘This is me.' That ownership breeds acceptance, and that's the ultimate goal,” Jackson says.
Barbara Machina of Charlotte, N.C., says posing for the project “definitely helped with my self-consciousness and body image.” Machina, mother of Zoe, 1, admits to never having felt totally comfortable with her body.
“I was the awkward teenager who wore baggy clothes,” she says. “I was never a bikini girl. When I got pregnant, I was nervous that things would get worse. But throughout my pregnancy, my husband kept saying how beautiful I was. Then, after giving birth, I suddenly realized my body was made for something. It was meant to give birth and meant to feed my baby. I suddenly had a whole different view.”
Arriving at the photo shoot still sparked some nerves, she says, but within minutes, she felt at ease.
“Laura and Ashley were so welcoming,” she says. “We sat and talked while Zoe played with Nova. It was just like we were friends.”
Machina opted for natural hair and minimal makeup. The image she selected shows her doting on a wide-eyed Zoe. Once Machina's image posted online, the response was overwhelmingly positive, she says.
“Comments started pouring in, saying how beautiful it is,” she says. “I understand that some people might be offended or disgusted, but the outpouring of love was so cool.”
Adrian Sarkozy Fear of Milford, Mich., mom of Corbin, 4, Davin, 2, and Ebe, 8 months, calls herself the poster child for bad self-esteem. A professional cyclist who left her career when she became pregnant with her first child, Fear has struggled to accept that her body will never be what it once was.
Participating in the project has “driven me to own who I am in the body I have now,” Fear says. She posed when she was eight weeks pregnant with Ebe, and admits that at first, seeing her body captured in the image was difficult.
“But in the end, I learned that it captured a very specific moment in time, and I love it now,” she says. “It was a great experience. It was very moving to be a part of it and very fun to tell our story.”
Sandy Jorgenson of St. Paul, Minn., mother of Margot, 2, had a third-degree tear during the birth that left her in pain for months. She experienced postpartum depression, and underwent reparative surgery five months after delivery. It took her nearly a year to feel like herself again. Sharing her story for the project was cathartic, she says.
“It was a time for me to reflect on what I'd accomplished and how far I'd come and to pay tribute to my strong body as well as to this sweet, perfect little human that I'd created and birthed,” she says. “I felt powerful, I felt beautiful, and I felt validated.”
Like so many women, Jorgenson used to daydream about ways she wished she could change her body. Now, “my body is telling my story,” she says.
“I could wish every day that I still had that tummy or those breasts that I had when I was 18, or even at 25, but my daughter didn't exist when I was those ages or when I looked that way — and couldn't have existed — on those terms,” she says. “My body gave me my girl, and not a single part of me would ever change a thing about that.”
Rachel Weaver is a contributing writer for Trib Total Media.