In an interview with The Huffington Post, photographer Leah DeVun described her experience with pregnancy and birth as complicated. Really complicated.
As a mother and an artist, DeVun has been struck by how cultural conversations surrounding childbirth emphasize the process as a natural one ― so much so that medical intervention and technological assistance are sometimes interpreted as signs of failure. As a result, the photographer became interested in the many apparatuses and devices that assist mothers’ bodies; instruments that, even more so than breastfeeding itself, are often kept hidden from public view.
“People have a lot of complex feelings about the ‘success’ of their birth,” DeVun said. “It’s interesting to encounter people’s perceptions about what their bodies are supposed to do. It struck me, how much technological aid it actually takes to assist in these processes that we think of as natural.”
DeVun had already been active in a variety of Listservs for mothers and parents in Brooklyn when she embarked upon her photography project, “In the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” To start, she put out a call for mothers willing to sit as her photographic subjects while demonstrating the materials they use to breastfeed. The series showcases women adorned with various pumps, shields and tubes, a stark contrast to the images of unmediated breastfeeding often shared to empower and exalt motherhood.
There is a unique beauty to DeVun’s photos, which depict human bodies and medical machinery without clear boundaries between them. “I was struck by the fact that these are so commonplace and yet completely unfamiliar to me,” DeVun said of the machinery she encountered. “They looked so alien in a lot of ways, but they are so quotidian, so ordinary. It’s like [upon using them] you get initiated into this secret club, and before that, everything is a complete mystery.”
Once you engage with a breast pump or nursing system, DeVun explained, the tools immediately change from unknown to intimate. “There is such an entanglement with your body and these things,” DeVun said. “They become literally second nature. The photos, I think, challenge how odd these appliances are; how odd they look and how odd you look wearing them.”
The photographs, like the subject matter they depict, possess a distinct balance of familiarity and mystique, coldness and warmth. This too mirrors DeVun’s complicated relationship with the experience of motherhood in all its strange complexity.
“The tone emphasizes some of the discomfort I’ve had with the experience of motherhood,” she said. “I’m not trying to say that this represents some kind of failure of adhering to nature. I just want to think about the complexity of our bodies, all the ways we are knit together with our environment, and all of its contradictions. Pausing to think about these networks between our flesh, all this plastic, and what it even means to do a natural thing.”
DeVun’s work is featured the group exhibition “Chimeras,” on view at the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts until April 29.