Chicago-based photographer Ashlee Wells Jackson has captured portraits of thousands of women in their postpartum period through the 4th Trimester Bodies Project. Ashlee is also the mother of three children, Xavier, who is 10, Nora, who is 3 and Aurora, who was stillborn due to complications from Twin to Twin Transfusion Syndrome. That experience changed the trajectory of Ashlee’s life and eventually lead her to the bold and powerful work she does through the 4th Trimester Bodies Project.
In this next interview in my Thoughts on Motherhood series, Ashlee is sharing her powerful story as a mom and as a creative entrepreneur who feels compelled to help mothers heal and celebrate their postpartum bodies through her life’s work.
As a mother of preemies, how did your experiences becoming a mother define what being a mother meant to you?
Motherhood is not what I thought it would be. I was part of a pretty hippie dippy natural birth community before I had my kids and to some degree I still am. So being a mom to preemies – and nothing but preemies – and being a mom to a dead baby and a child with special needs was not what I had envisioned. All the same, I can’t imagine it being different. This is the mom I get to be and I very strongly feel that I am the mom for them. It has been an unexpected journey for sure.
How did you overcome the challenges you faced as a mom to preemies and as a mother who lost a child?
I’m not sure overcome is the right word because to a degree you don’t. To me, overcome means that you leave something behind you or get past it. The difference in what I thought pregnancy and birth and parenthood would be is something that honestly is so moldable. It changes every day. There are days that I find I am angry and grieving and mourning that I never got to have a third trimester. I have three beautiful kids but I don’t know what it’s like to have a third trimester. And I work with women in the post-pregnancy realm, so every day I’m surrounded by birth stories and bodies that have done all these things that I will never understand.
And even beyond pregnancy and birth into parenthood, I think for me I just do. I confront things head on and am very honest and open about where I am at when I’m there. I tend to be pretty optimistic with things but not in a way that ignores emotion and difficulties.
So I don’t know that I’ve overcome anything. My story isn’t one of triumph but it is one of endurance. Every day is different. Some days are easier than others and some days are harder but we just try to keep moving forward. I think as long as we are honest and acknowledging where we are and not going backwards, then it’s been a good day.
That’s so beautifully said. A lot of the struggle is ignoring what’s going on for us as mothers on an emotional level. The moment you’re able to acknowledge that and own it, you can endure and move forward.
As you grieved for your loss, what inspired you to create a business where you’d be working in the postpartum realm with other mothers?
I think it’s fair to call it a business now because it has become our full time jobs. But it didn’t start out that way. It started off as an art project and a movement but it was never about me going after a job or creating a business for income. It was about meeting a personal need to provide a little hope and healing for myself and transcend that gap of feeling so alone.
Even though I had people who were there for me and who supported us through our loss and through our NICU stay and who were more tender and amazing and kind than I think I could ever deserve, there’s an element to this experience where you feel utterly alone because it happened in your body and to you. You feel like you are the only person who has ever been right where you are – and to a degree that’s true. But once I started to get on the other side of it, I realized that I was not alone.
In my years prior working with women in the studio, I realized that the most beautiful perfect amazing women who were gorgeous inside and out all thought they had these inherent things wrong with their bodies. They’d tell us they couldn’t be photographed from one side or that their wrists were problematic or that they hated their knees. They had all this baggage they’d picked up about themselves and their bodies and they brought it to us. They said they wanted us to make them feel amazing and beautiful but would say, “Just so you know, this is what we’re working with.”
I wasn’t in that space until after everything with my daughters happened. I was always really body positive and felt confident and strong. Part of that feeling alone for me was wrapped up in feeling broken and feeling like my body had failed me. So I understood where a lot of that self-loathing and where a lot of body images issues land. I might not understand where they all came from because we pick them up from so many different sources. But I understood how it felt to be a woman walking around in the world today never feeling like you’re good enough or actively feeling like you’re broken.
I wanted to put an end to it. I wanted to put an end to it generally, kind of in a grandiose way by saying this is not ok, stop this. We are not going to raise our children in this world anymore. But I also wanted to do it in a direct and more personal way. I wanted to have the opportunity to show these women through my lens both literally and figuratively how amazing they were. How their children see them. How the rest of the world sees them without Photoshop, without their clothes on and without that baggage.
Why did you decide to shoot your own image first?
The natural way was to be the one to go first. That was a huge leap for me and I waffled for quite some time with whether I could do that or not. You’ll hear from a lot of photographers that we stand behind the camera because that is where we are comfortable. We don’t like to be on the other side in the spotlight. So it was a challenge but I knew it would be a similar challenge for a variety of reasons for every woman I hoped to work with.
It seemed inauthentic for me to not do it. And selfishly, I needed out of it what I hoped everyone else would get out of it. And ultimately, it felt really unfair to ask other women to do this bold and brave thing and put themselves out there if I hadn’t already done it myself. So I did.
How did it feel when you actually stepped in front of the camera and created that experience for yourself?
It’s been profoundly healing for me. At first, there was a little disconnect between my photo and me and my story and my emotions. Our early pictures intentionally didn’t include my face so it is a shot of my torso. That was because I wanted the focus to be on my scar and on the things that were paining me. And I was a little uncertain about how I felt about my photo at first. It had all the things I wanted this project to entail. The picture was a mom holding her baby looking strong. But it was definitely a process for me. I was uncomfortable seeing my scar at first. I was uncomfortable that some of my daughter’s special needs were visible without providing a context for what her story really was. And that was hard.
But there came a point where I would see my photo and think that looks beautiful. And I’d laugh and realize that it was my photo and that it was us and that it was what started this whole project. There came a point when I realized that if I could see that photo as beautiful and that photo was me – and this might seem like a very simple connection but it was quite a process – that I was beautiful and I was whole and I was fine. It’s been healing.
And beyond my story and my photo, the opportunity to work with thousands of women and children and impact their lives has been profound. I think years will pass, maybe even decades, before I’m able to unpack and understand how much this project has shaped who I am.
What made you specifically want to shoot images of mothers in their postpartum period?
At the time the project started, my focus and my world was so narrow. At some point, we would love to work with all women and at some point we would love to work with all humans. But motherhood was just such a natural place to start because for me those issues – and the grief and the shame and the broken-ness – came from my motherhood journey. And for better or worse, I knew that so many other women in the world and women in my world had gone through the same thing.
You know after we go through puberty, motherhood is very often the biggest shift that a woman encounters in her life, physically, mentally, emotionally and practically. It’s something so many of us are expected to do but we aren’t often able to talk about it. I think something that is that profound and transformative needs to be talked about and that sharing our stories is such a basic human need that giving women a forum to do just that was really important. Not that it isn’t important for all women but mothers have a hard time putting themselves first and being the ones to share so we began there.
How do you impact the lives of the women who step in front of the lens?
We’ve given them a platform and a safe, supportive and non-judgmental space to see themselves. I don’t think there is anything overtly profound in the space that we hold other than it’s just space. We let them see themselves how we see them and that’s without judgment and with empathy and love. The change that comes out of that has so much more to do with them than with us. They are able to see their worth and they are able to let go of whatever they’ve been carrying around, whether it’s something from society or their childhood or upbringing. And they are able to find a community. Seeing yourself as part of this strong group of women who gather in this space is really connecting and healing in itself.
After shooting images of nearly 2,000 mothers, what have you learned about women’s postpartum bodies?
We are all so different. American or Westernized culture to be more broad, tells us so often this is the mold. And if you want to feel worth or feel beautiful, we’re told you need to fit into this mold. So we hear we need to do our best to squeeze into this mold and use the products and messages thrown at us to work toward this one thing. And it’s so unrealistic.
We are all shaped so differently. Our bodies respond to our lives and pregnancy and birth and everyday living in so many different ways and we are all ok and we are all beautiful. As an artist, I think I innately appreciate some of the things society views as flaws be that spots or scars or hair or whatever. The little things that make us all unique are the things I find beauty in. We have seen so many representations of what it looks like to be a woman and a mother. And they really are beautiful. I just hope that someday the rest or our society will be able to grasp that.
If you could change one thing about the way our society approaches motherhood, would that be it? Would you change how we view our post-baby bodies?
I think it would be – but more the way we view ourselves. Body focus is so transcendent especially in our culture for women. But if I had to choose one thing, it would be the way we view each other. That we would view each other without preconceived notions and instead come at people with acceptance and love. That’s really powerful. And not to be too grandiose, but that’s what our world needs right now.
Viewing your work, it’s so very clear that you do more than take a woman’s photo. What does a shoot with you actually look like?
It’s a pretty fun process and this is one of my favorite questions I get asked. People in the media ask if women just come and line up in their underwear and then we take all their photos. And we just crack up and say absolutely not. Women register for our sessions without any pre-screening from us. We say where we are going to be and what dates we are available and then whoever grabs the spots gets them.
We try and create a space that is comfortable like a private residence or more comfortable spaces than a sterile studio. And I think that disarms both participants who are mothers as well as kids quite quickly. Then we set in on some pampering. We do hair and makeup for all of our shoots not because we need it – though providing a consistent look is great for the project’s consistency – but because it is our sneaky way of letting the moms sit down and relax for 30 or 45 minutes and have everything be about them. And it provides space for us to get to know each other and open up before they have to get in front of the camera.
Once they transition to the camera space, they don’t take their clothes off right away. We sit down and we have a very open-ended interview where they can share their story with us. It’s only then, at the very end of their session, that they gather their kids if they are shooting with them and we take their portrait for the project. That is really quick – probably the fastest part of the whole project. We capture their family in a really candid way. The moms stand there with their kids or by themselves and we talk and we laugh and we joke. Joy emanates from their face.
Then once we are done shooting, they don’t leave. We sit down together to look at the images. This is the first project I’ve done in my life where I process images with the client and it is so important. They can soak in everything that has just happened and we chose their image together. It is really powerful because it allows them to be there in the moment and see what just happened and chose the image that they want to send out to the world. They do that – I don’t do that. I am just the facilitator.
What drives you to continue doing this work and do the juggle?
It’s not easy and we do what we have to do. The end of your question is one of my least favorite things that moms get asked because it’s a question that only moms get asked. I asked my son’s dad, who is an artist who travels a lot, if he ever gets asked how he juggles his art and work with being a father and he looked at me like I had two heads. I think it’s funny. So the question itself of why we want to know that and that it’s a concern to us is interesting. And it’s why this work is so needed too.
For me, this work is a passion. It is something I’m able to do and something I feel compelled to do. Do I do this work because of motherhood and has motherhood catapulted me into this? Yes, absolutely so you can’t tease one out from the other. And both of my living children have special needs, which makes everything that much more difficult. So it’s not easy but we do what we do and we find a way to make it all happen because you can do both. You can work if you choose to and be a mother if you choose to. To a degree, our society needs to stop questioning that.
On a broader level, the work that we do exists because society needs the message we are spreading. Even in the past three years since we’ve been doing this work, we’ve come a long way. Social media now allows images of women breastfeeding and allows certain elements of nudity but we still have such a long way to go. There are brands now making public statements that they won’t Photoshop their models or that they’ll use their staff as models rather than hiring from firms. All of that is amazing and all of the other voices in this community are shouting similar messages to what we are sharing and tackling this in their own beautiful way.
But when it comes to raising future generations of humans who are respectful to one another and who are respectful of women and for women, there is so much that still needs to change and so much that still needs to be talked about. And you know we can’t really normalize what’s normal if we are only showing one mold. We really believe in the importance of the change we are seeking to create beyond anything.
Thank you so much for sharing your story Ashlee. If people want to learn more about you, where can they find you online?
On our web site, you’ll find our gallery of every woman we’ve ever shot and their stories. And you can use our social media handles or visit Body. Breast. Baby. to learn about our conferences. I also think it’s important to say that this is our final year shooting on the road for the 4th Trimester Bodies Project. So there won’t be a chance to catch us again next year. If you want to do this, join us now because this is it.