Sandra Bacchi’s photographic memoir navigating motherhood in the face of food allergies and learning challenges. Bacchi’s monograph, “Watermelons Are Not Strawberries”. The imagery is a photographic memoir about the ups and downs of parenting and the surprising lessons about acceptance and healing we can learn from our children.
THE KIDS ARE ALRIGHT
Since the earliest years of the medium, photography has relied upon the hidden presence of mothers to render childhood visible. In the mid-nineteenth century—a time when infant and child loss was common—the invention and spread of photography enabled parents to capture the faces of their beloved young children. Photographic portraits provided precious evidence of a child’s beauty and vitality; in the eventuality of death, they also offered tangible focus for grief. Because the lengthy exposure times of early photographic processes required portrait subjects to hold still without wavering, floppy babies and fretful children usually needed physical support to maintain their pose. Enter the “hidden mother.” Whether totally shrouded in black, artfully draped in vibrantly patterned cloth, partially hidden behind a curtain, or simply excised from the negative by various mechanical means, these mother (and mother-adjacent) figures served multiple purposes: they held children still during the exposure, provided a familiar source of comfort, and ensured, to the extent possible, a cooperative subject. Although intended as a practical solution, these “hidden mothers,” at once embedded into the picture and erased from the scene, have left us an evocative and unsettling image of motherhood: vigilant yet invisible, neither fully separate from nor comfortably merged with their offspring, occupying an indeterminate space between.
With the advent of faster lenses and more sensitive photographic materials, the “hidden mother” phenomenon of early photography disappeared, but the mass production of snapshot and other relatively simple cameras paved the way for new dialogues between photography and the construction of motherhood. Instead of holding up babies for the camera, women increasingly held the cameras themselves, simultaneously becoming observers and participants in the intimate lives of their children. Even as Kodak marketed cameras to women as recorders of family life, new generations of professional women photographers from Gertrude Käsebier to Sally Mann claimed the territory of the family and the subject of childhood as their own, bringing to it a keenness, rigor, and insight that merged professional craft and personal experience. And yet, the concept of the hidden mother—at once within the frame and separate from their children—has stayed with us and shaped how we see and understand pictures of children taken by their mothers.
Inheriting and transforming this tradition, Sandra Bacchi has used her camera to both see and understand the lives of her children and, by extension, her own life. Like many female photographers who serve as primary caregivers to their young children, Bacchi discovered that her best subjects were close at hand, and since 2014, she has made more than four thousand photographs of her home life, focused in particular on her daughters, Ana and Vitória. Here, necessity was the mother of invention, or at least inspiration. Each of Bacchi’s daughters suffered from significant challenges, including multiple food allergies, and then later, related learning differences. To protect her daughters thus required constant oversight and hyper-vigilance, a form of intense and unwavering observation that Bacchi channeled into her photography.
What can be more inspiring and resilient than listening to a five-year-old girl who spent her life until then struggling with severe multiple food allergies, saying that when she couldn’t eat strawberries, she pretended that watermelons were strawberries?
The visual experience of moving from chaos to clarity is both vulnerable and relatable, giving the viewer a window into what it means to find peace and a little bit of hope.