Photos That Capture the Dark, Conflicting Nature of Motherhood
Norwegian photographer Marie Sjøvold documents the intimate changes in her body and family life after the birth of her child.
All photos by Marie Sjøvold
In a duffel coat and woolly hat, Marie Sjøvold seems right at home in Kristiansund, a remote, strange and beautiful place on the northwestern coast of Norway. She's here, at the Nordic Light International Festival of Photography, to exhibit Midnight Milk, a photography series that traces the "ambivalence and inner conflict of becoming a mother for the first time."
For the natives in this part of the world, Kristiansund is described as a metropolis. Yet it's a city of about 24,000 people, sharing their lives in pastel-coloured homes encircled by fjords and fir forests and the ice-capped mountains of the Trollheimen range. It's a vision of Scandinavian family life, at once utopic and totally trapping.
Trace your finger on a map, and Kristiansund is in line with Iceland, across the North Atlantic. Flying in, our plane was tossed around by a thunderstorm which, the pilot informed us, had appeared suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere. On our first morning, it snowed as the sun shone. In the hotel lobby, a government official watches over the barmen, making sure our half-liters of lager aren't topped up.
Sjøvold, 33, now lives in the outer-reaches of Oslo, yet grew up in a place not far from or dissimilar to this. At the age of 23, she left Norway for Berlin, quickly establishing herself in the photographic community of the city and travelling the world as a photojournalist on assignment for German magazines and broadsheets.
In 2008, as she neared the end of her twenties, Sjøvold's grandmother was diagnosed with Alzheimer's. She returned home, leaving the high life in Berlin to care for her family in the quiet, remote familiarity of where she grew up. As she witnessed the slow death of her grandmother, she realized she was pregnant.
The photography she created on her return to Norway, entitled Dust Catches Light, was she says, "a story about my pregnancy and my grandmother's simultaneous drift into dementia."
Dust Catches Light was mostly self-portraits, Marie photographing her body's dramatic changes in the context of her grandparents' recently-vacated house and in Sjøvold's new house in the forested outskirts of Oslo—the one that would soon become her family's home.
"I wanted to capture a time of waiting," she says. "The physical and mental changes of that time. As I felt a baby girl kicking in my belly, I felt this new era was soon to come. It felt like time was standing still, and the house became a symbol of the meeting between the past and the present, and what was yet to come."
If time stood still then, it suddenly moved very quickly for Marie. Out of Dust Catches Light came Midnight Milk, an expressionistic, almost surrealist exploration of her new life, in the months after she gave birth to her daughter. Using her own body as subject, Midnight Milk explores how the sudden presence of a baby changed the contours of her life; her biology, her mentality, her entire identity.
"Having a child is a very invasive, intensely physical process," Sjøvold says. "But I didn't see this around me. I was tired of all the happy stories about what a perfect thing motherhood is. I wanted to show the physical transformation and the inner ambivalence women feel as they try to find their own way of being a 'good' mother."
It's beautiful, brooding photography, love-filled and joyous for the moment, yet dark and pensive, as if part of Sjøvold was in mourning for something too. From her daughter tracing the veins of her swollen breasts, to the pair of them sleeping like reflections in a mirror, to their limbs entwined as they wash together, to a path through the misty, sodden forests that surround their home—the sun shining on the horizon—to a dark, covered figure carrying Sjøvold down a pathway, maybe away from her home.
"The stage for motherhood is set long before a child is born," says Sjøvold. "The identity of European women is in a state of constant flux. But I don't see, in the conversations we have about womanhood, a recognition of how the role of being a mother has changed. We haven't acknowledged this with the same speed or in the same direction as womanhood."
There is an "ambivalence, an inner-conflict" that goes with being a mother for the first time, Sjøvold says. "I wanted to explore this new responsibility, this new state of mind," she says.
Of her child, she says, "I gained the opportunity to be as close to another human as you can get. A person that wants all the love and care it can get. Everyday I see my own reactions and emotions mirrored to the extreme when my child is trying to understand the world. I realised this was so much more important than my own life."
But Marie lost parts of her life too. "You go from being an individual to being part of a family," she says. "I lost a lot of self-involvement, because I had to suddenly put someone else's needs before myself, all the time. Compared to the life I had, I lost my mobility and impulsiveness. I now calculate risk very differently. It took me time to accept this, to find a way to balance this with my work and my family."
Yet the conflict she seeks to show is not just personal. It stands as an address to her own family, to the people of Kristiansund, of Norway, and to men and women as a whole. "This conflict of motherhood comes from your past, your own childhood, your family, from society, from what people expect from themselves," she says.
What would she say to the Marie that did not yet know she was pregnant, I ask. "If I could go back and give Marie some advice, I don´t think she would be ready to receive it," she says. "I would tell her to make something constructive out of whatever she experiences, good or bad. For herself and for the children. She would understand that."