What Is the Secret to Creative Success? An Interview With Celebrity Portrait Photographer and Mother, Jenny Lewis

24/11/2015 12:53 | Updated 23 November 2016

Jenny Lewis' new book One Day Young, features portraits of women in their Hackney homes within 24 hours of giving birth. A few of these images are of acquaintance's, but most were stranger's at that point, all depicting an arresting intimacy and timelessness that would sit perfectly amongst the collections at The National Portrait Gallery.

I first met Jenny whilst working for an events company. I remember being immediately drawn to her at one such event. I was struck by her vibrant energy, creating a confident glow that attracted you to her instantly. I could see why mothers, within hours of giving birth, felt safe enough to let her into their homes to photograph them.
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One day young. Photo: courtesy of Jenny Lewis

One Day Young is a rare gem of a book, and it soon caught the eye of the international development charity WaterAid. Using Jenny's idea as a platform, they asked her to visit rural Malawi to photograph new mothers, and highlight the difference between birthing in the UK and Malawi - the access to clean water.

Once in Malawi Jenny spent seven days photographing mothers who had just birthed at the Simulemba Health Centre. This centre serves over 70,000 people and delivers around 90 babies a month.
During that week, she photographed the joys and fears surrounding birth, and living without the privilege of clean water.
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One day young Malawi Photo: courtesy of Jenny Lewis/WaterAid

I met up with Jenny to talk work and inspiration, gaining an insight into how becoming a mother 10 years ago was instrumental to her creative success.

LM You have been shooting portraits for over 20 years, from artists to celebrities, working with national newspapers and music labels. In your experience, what are the differences, if any, in how the genders approach their subject matter?

JL Perhaps a man couldn't shoot this in the same way. It is not their experience, or their story.
I would go further and say not only did the series need to be shot by a woman but a mother. I doubt that I would have thought of giving these notions of strength, empowerment and support of mothers much consideration before I became a mother. I noticed the relative invisibility of the subject matter in photography, art and the media. I guess men and women have different experiences in life and you can only use your own life and perspective as a starting point.

I am interested in stories, and I probably find a woman's story easier to relate to. A trust is built up quite quickly that we are on the same side. When shooting One Day Young in Malawi I started to see how water was primarily a woman's issue. The girls were being held back from school to collect water, and I saw the dangers and their vulnerability at the water holes. With one family I met, the girls had to do a 6 hour round trip each day for water.

I've found inspiration from the women around me, and realised that actually their stories are as inspiring and engaging, if not more so, than the thrill of meeting and shooting a celebrity or an author.


LM How has being a mother affected your career opportunities?

JL I've always wanted to be a mum, to work and have a creative outlet. My work really slowed down when I became a mother, and I took a break from commercial work. I only had the time to do what came to me rather than chasing new commissions. This gave me space to breath, to think about work that I wanted to make. I knew the message that I wanted to pass onto other women.

LM What advice would you give to other creative working mothers?

JL I've found the mother community on social media very supportive of creative projects. That wasn't there when I started One Day Young, but was when it was published five years later. This support is great when you are working isolated at home.

Find a network of writers, PR and other professionals with specialisms that sympathise with your own skills, and with those who also understand the struggle of balancing family life.

I would say build this up, grow together, be open and share ideas and skills.

LM You have shot celebrity portraits, from Dame Maggie Smith to artist Marc Quinn. More recently you looked again to Hackney with your Studio series, photographing the rich mix of creatives living and working in the area. What keeps brings you back to the personal as a subject matter?

My projects are a way of investigating myself in a weird way, coming to terms with the transition into motherhood, and the creative community that I call home.

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Studio Series Photo: Courtesy of Jenny Lewis

JL I really enjoy these projects, working as an insider rather than an onlooker and looking for the connection between us. I was a little concerned before going to Malawi that I was too much of an outsider to capture this intimate moment, with the language and cultural barrier. But I really enjoy shooting with a ratio of 1:1 and the families made our team feel so welcome and the women opened up. This work feeds back into my celebrity portraits, helping me strip back to the personal. I realise more and more that it is the human interaction that matters, breaking down superficial barriers, helping someone relax, hearing their stories. That lasting image that we have created together gives them more than just a photograph, it can be empowering, for the subject and the viewer.