Documenting the realities of juggling motherhood and a creative career
Dunja Opalko's new series of portraits looks to both celebrate mothers in the creative industries and gently highlight the difficulties of juggling a career you're passionate about with the realities of parenthood.
London-based photographer Opalko has her daughter in peak pandemic times, in June 2020. It occurred to her very quickly that the myth of being able to 'have it all' as a woman was just that – a myth. "I suddenly felt that it's quite hard to balance work and motherhood," she says. "With Covid, of course, things slowed down naturally, but after a year or so, I felt that everyone went more or less back to normal while I was still trying to figure out how to find a balance. The feeling of not being a mother to 100% and not being a photographer to 100% was quite hard to accept.
"I love what I do, but I also want to be present for my daughter, so this created a conflict within me as I couldn't give my all to any of those. I realised that you really have to love what you do as a creative person to keep doing it with a toddler by your side."
It soon dawned on Opalko that she couldn't be alone in feeling that way. By late 2021, she started thinking about all the women she knew or knew of who had young children and also ran their own businesses or were self-employed in the creative industries. She started getting in touch with people she admired, such as Naomi Raybould, founder of Beyond Nine, writer Liv Purvis, photographer Ola O. Smit and artist Laxmi Hussain.
Photographs of those women became Opalko's Creative Mothers project, which was cemented when she brought in writer Tessa Pearson. "I wanted to give the project more context and substance," Opalko explains. Pearson interviewed the portrait subjects, inviting them to share more about their personal journeys. The words and images were finally gathered in a series titled 'Creative Mothers: on running businesses and raising children', the product of almost 18 months of work.
"One of my biggest challenges was dedicating the energy and time to work on a long-term personal project. Thankfully I have an incredibly supportive partner," says Opalko. Another logistical challenge was simply finding times when both photographer and subject were free – these were largely dictated by when kids were in nursery and around daily commitments like the school run.
"I'm very grateful to everyone who took time out of their busy schedule to be part of this project... Everyone's story is different, but what they all have in common is the unconditional love towards their children as well as their profession," she adds. "It's a busy world we live in, and there are a lot of day-to-day challenges we're presented with. Even more so, it was important to me that the portraits depict moments of calm in the busy lives of self-employed creative women emphasising a sense of strength, love and connection between mother and child."
Creative Mothers also offers a neat encapsulation of Opalko's work, which spans portraiture, craft and interior photography "with an overall documentary lifestyle element," as she puts it. That means that, for the most part, she prefers to "document and observe rather than setting up a scene," she says.
"Of course, there's a sense of art direction, sharing a mood board so we're all on the same page and picking the right spaces to shoot in, but it's important to me that the people in front of the camera feel like themselves and not staged. To me, this is what makes the work an intimate and authentic piece."
The images were shot at subjects' workplaces, such as a studio, or at home or outside – "whatever feels right," says Opalko. "As everyone's space is different, I shoot in natural light in order to give the images an overall consistent feel shooting digitally on my Canon 5D Mark IV."
While the series reached a natural conclusion, Opalko sees Creative Mothers as an ongoing project, and she's keen to keep shooting more mothers in similar industries for the foreseeable future. "Eventually, I'd love for this to develop into an exhibition, which would allow this project to bring this community of mothers in the creative field together so they can connect in real life," she says, adding that with the interviews alongside the images, the project would also naturally lend itself to a book.
"The overall aim is to produce an honest, touching and inclusive tribute to creative mothers," says Opalko. "Motherhood can feel lonely, and many women experience a shift or loss of identity as having a child changes everything. This project will hopefully inspire them, making them feel heard and understood, and through a sense of community that comes with this project, they might not feel alone."