THE MOTHERHOOD GAZE: The Cost of Censoring Motherhood
Obscura DAO
February 16th, 2022

A conversation with NFT photographers Mia Forrest, Lily Hatten, and Amy Woodward

By Kristyna Archer

Left: Amy Woodward, Jessiebella and her youngest, 2021, Center: Mia Forrest, Mullet, 2021, Right: Lily Hatten, A mother on the threshold, from Mammal, 2019
Left: Amy Woodward, Jessiebella and her youngest, 2021, Center: Mia Forrest, Mullet, 2021, Right: Lily Hatten, A mother on the threshold, from Mammal, 2019

Web3 offers the power & promise of sovereign equitable democratized storytelling, with the freedom to own your narrative on the blockchain. Yet we are still held back by the ties of Web2 that quickly confront that alluring “progress.” Albeit, the baggage of Web2 will continue to haunt us, yet this digital Renaissance allows us the opportunity to rewrite the rules. 

Upon learning about the censorship and harassment on Twitter that NFT photographers Mia Forrest, Amy Woodward, and Lily Hatten have faced from their work capturing tender moments of motherhood, I felt this immediate pit in my stomach. To be silenced creates deep scars, cutting off your voice from systems in place that continue to penalize the victims, never addressing the root of these problems. Within the history of contemporary photography we have witnessed many unique & informed perspectives of matrescence & motherhood from prolific photographers such Sally Mann, Julie Blackmon, Mary Ellen Mark, and Tina Barney - all allowing us a glimpse into the everyday through the maternal lens. Often the work is questioned for ethics and integrity when involving children, deemed controversial, to the degree of censorship. It raises the question, why is showcasing raw moments of motherhood so threatening to society? 

Amy, Lily, and Mia have come together to navigate these waters and find a path forward to expressing their truths. Their stories must be told. Through various twitter space talks and interviews I feel a responsibility for amplifying their message and want to cement this conversation onto the blockchain.

Words do not do the Motherhood gaze justice, let me share some piercing examples:

Left: Sally Mann, Jessie at Five, 1987. Courtesy of the MET, Right: Sally Mann, Last Light, 1990. Courtesy Gagosian
Left: Sally Mann, Jessie at Five, 1987. Courtesy of the MET, Right: Sally Mann, Last Light, 1990. Courtesy Gagosian
Left: Tina Barney, Paul & Alexa, 1989, Right: Julie Blackmon, cover of her book Homegrown, published in 2014
Left: Tina Barney, Paul & Alexa, 1989, Right: Julie Blackmon, cover of her book Homegrown, published in 2014

The male gaze was first coined by film critic and feminist theorist Laura Mulvey in her seminal 1973 paper Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, and is defined by the act of viewing the world through a hetero male perspective, reserving women as sexual objects for men’s viewing pleasure. Whether or not this vocabulary is relevant today in a non-binary society, Warwick Gow poignantly tweeted, “...are we really talking about a predatory/egocentric gaze vs a humanized gaze,” the fact is we all are thoroughly drenched in, subjected to, and inhabit the hetero male perspective in film, literature, politics, history, art, that we may not even realize to what degree we have been subconsciously impacted. Could one say then that the motherhood gaze is the antithesis to the male gaze? 

Archer: How would one define the motherhood gaze? 

Hatten: There’s a visual language in motherhood that is very much a shared language. No one owns any of those experiences. We're all building this together, and experience it slightly differently. I’m influenced equally both by the things that you don't want to forget, as I am by the things you do want to forget. 

Archer: How has the “male gaze” tainted many unique perspectives?

Hatten: I find it difficult to conceptualize outside of the male gaze. It takes years of unlearning to be able to do that. Yet with the camera you can do it instinctively rather than having to think your way through it.  I’ve started that process of unlearning by using the camera, and looking at other mothers and how they use their gaze to unlearn what it means to be a woman.”  

Sally Mann was continually criticized for the way she depicted her children in the nude. In defense to feminist writer Mary Gordon criticizing Mann’s work, she invoked Oscar Wilde, “that the hypocritical, prudish, and philistine English public, when unable to find the art in a work of art, instead looked for the man in it.” 

Sally Mann, cover of Aperture, 1990. WSJ “Critique: Censoring Virginia,” 1991
Sally Mann, cover of Aperture, 1990. WSJ “Critique: Censoring Virginia,” 1991

Woodward, Forrest, and Hatten are in constant battle, defending their work to be seen. Below are examples of censored works.**

Left: Mia Forrest, Rainbow, 2019, Right: Amy Woodward, Jessiebella and her youngest two, 2021
Left: Mia Forrest, Rainbow, 2019, Right: Amy Woodward, Jessiebella and her youngest two, 2021

Archer: Can you speak to a particular example, and how it made you feel, when you work has been censored?

Forrest: It's frustrating not to be able to share what's so important to us, and is a huge part of our lives that's already hidden from society. We are just trying our best to communicate who we are and what our life is. It’s demoralizing to have that taken away from you and questioned.  We are questioned rather than the predators.”

Woodward: Don’t we already get guilted, judged and shamed enough in real life as mothers, from day to day? And am I supposed to completely separate my motherhood from my art practice? The language that these platforms use - they tear you down, they eat away at you. Within the context of the work that I do, I didn't even have those words in my orbit, like ‘violating.’ I have just never thought my work could possibly be seen in that way. There’s such a dissonance there - I remember how much it winded me the first time I had work pulled down for ‘sexual solicitation’. In one of the photographs, you could see the side of my son’s hip, and he was sitting on my knee. It was a lovely tender moment. How did we get here? It was just a real shock, and it really caught me off guard. You start to internalize that shame, try to move through all of this toxicity that gets thrown at you. I find that the work of mine that is most often censored shows either postpartum bodies or bodies that aren’t depicting what typically appeals to the male gaze. As in, a soft postpartum belly with milk rolling down is banned, where a toned torso is fine. It just blows my mind what these bots are trained to do, the way they are trained to attack. They're trained to look for any hint of non-commercial humanness and get rid of it.

Left: Amy Woodward, Lily and Alice after a feed, 2021, Right: Mia Forrest, Bathe, 2021
Left: Amy Woodward, Lily and Alice after a feed, 2021, Right: Mia Forrest, Bathe, 2021

The connotation vs. denotation conversation poised by poet Robert Graves in The Naked & the Nude is one that explores rhetoric, allusions, and voyeurism versus our natural being. Art critic John Berger steered that conversation in his series, Ways of Seeing, Ep. 2 (1972)

“To be naked is to be oneself, to be nude is to be seen naked by others and yet not recognized by oneself. A nude has to be seen as an object in order to be a nude.”

Archer: Do you feel that culturally our unhealthy relationship with nudity is what is the most threatening to the depiction of matrescence, because it confronts a reality of the dark issues (pedaphilia, sex-trafficking) that we do not have the courage to face? 

Hatten: I don’t think it’s just about America’s relationship with nudity. I think there’s something that’s threatening about motherhood itself, and the mother-child dyad being shown in all it’s complexity that’s threatening to existing power structures and the narrative of the quiet, compliant, endlessly self sacrificing mother that these structures benefit from. Being a new mother is almost like being born again, naked, covered in blood, energetically open and vulnerable to every sight, sound and sensation. I don’t think we can come close to communicating that visceral experience as profoundly as through the photographic image.

Archer: How does the ethical challenges in photojournalism compare to the ethics and censorship of motherhood?

Hatten: Photographers go to refugee camps and take photos of malnourished naked children and that's ok, and very hard-hitting. Yet we can't take photos from inside our own home and share them? This is actually an ethical place to do photojournalism. We are not going into communities where we have a structural advantage over them in some way and extracting their stories, we are connecting with our families at home with them.

Amy Woodward, Arlo and Aura, 2020
Amy Woodward, Arlo and Aura, 2020

Hatten: There's obviously considerations around whether you have a right to use your child on the internet at all. There's lots of different positions for lots of different reasons. I believe there needs to be representations of parenthood and childhood in the public eye, particularly normalizing the fact that it isn't easy. You can feel ambivalent at times, it's ok to get help.  We have neuro-diverse children, and that's something I am just getting a sense of how to visually communicate.  It's really hard because some days I just feel complete despair over my parenting of him, his relationship to the world, and my relationship with him. We have these critical conversations about society’s relationship to disability happening in my domestic space, and I think it's a story that needs to be told.

Amy Woodward, Lily and Alice in the Morning Sun, 2021
Amy Woodward, Lily and Alice in the Morning Sun, 2021

The global pandemic has reverted the progress made in gender equality in the workforce with 2 out of 3 women exiting to take care of the family. Callisto brings up valid points on the politics of womanhood and the economic dependence the system has on censoring the realities of motherhood.

Archer: What is the ultimate cost to censoring your photography capturing motherhood? 

Hatten: Our entire global system relies on the unpaid work of women, and it's work. It's important that our two dimensionality as humans and the ambivalence to this hard work is seen, rather than being hidden from view. Our economic system relies on that. In order for that to stay unpaid and undervalued we need to objectify the people who are doing it. That's a part of censorship that’s quite unexplored, the threat motherhood is to the economic system because we actually underwrite the entire economy with our labor. We don’t have a space on the internet that's just for us. There’s always predators intruding into these conversations about motherhood that cuts off our lifeline, especially these last few years during the pandemic when we were more tied to the home than we had ever been.”

Woodward: Being a photographer who works within the storytelling, documentary and portrait space, my work is often naturally about my own lived experience. I’ve turned the camera towards those closest to me since my early teens. Not being able to share this work would mean a life’s work lost. I believe it is valuable, relevant, and deserves to be seen. In the most simple terms, we really just want to tell our stories and the stories of our children - and not have to fight for it.

Forrest: I feel like I am protesting against some system by putting the work out there. But that’s not what I want to be doing. I am certainly not going to stop, because if I stop I’m defeated. That's not the direction that I want mothers to be heading in, to feel silenced and defeated by the system. When you sense an injustice in your spirit and ignore it and you feel a real sense of loss.

Mia Forrest, Huckleberry, 2022
Mia Forrest, Huckleberry, 2022

Hatten: A time when you’ve never felt more alone and mothers had felt the brunt of the pain of childcare during the pandemic, sharing and connecting through your artwork is a lifeline. We are not the problem here, our children are not the problem, our photographs are not the problem. If they aren’t safe in our photos, they are not safe anywhere, they're not safe in real life and we are not the ones that are making them unsafe.”

As Obscurians, they have also created a discord channel to evolve this discussion, build a better Web3, and connect to get their stories told.  

Archer: What steps can be taken to protect the important work you do?

Woodward: The community can act as a cushion by being mindful and watching their audience, how they are engaging, who's following them. Also being conscious of the type of lists we are being added to without permission.

Forrest: In the Obscura discord channel we're currently talking about putting together some document that assists people working in the mother gaze with how to protect themselves.

Hatten: I want Twitter to implement a new feature where I can actually have control over the privacy of individual tweets, keeping some private for an audience that you trust.  I’m also interested in the secret NFT platform that Quentin Tarantino is using.

Forrest: Limiting our reach and protecting our kids is emphasizing what we don’t want, which is hiding our children. I think that undermines where we are trying to go. It's so hard to find that balance on being seen, and normalizing depictions of vulnerable motherhood. Sometimes I wonder, are we going backwards or forwards?
**There is no "right" way to do Web3. The path forward requires being present and building communities in defense of bots and algorithms. As we know, "Nature abhors a vacuum," meaning if we as Obscurians do not fill this potential with thoughtful, meaningful conversation and action, the inequities of the past will by default fill the void.  We have a responsibility to do so. But “what about the children!” the proverbial they proclaim! By protecting the motherhood gaze, we are protecting our children. To silence authentic stories of motherhood is to damage and disconnect from our roots.

Lily Hatten, self-portrait, Motherload, 2021
Lily Hatten, self-portrait, Motherload, 2021

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