Erin Aniker speaks with artist Camille Sanson about the mental health fears and stigmas surrounding childbirth and motherhood
Absolution is a solo exhibition by Camille Sanson reflecting on her personal journey into motherhood. Through their making and narrative progression, the photographic series explores the depths of the shadow and play between dark and light. Similar to the process of developing black and white photographs in a dark room, and metaphorical relation to conception and birth, the images transition from darkness and emerge with renewed existence in light.
Produced in close dialogue and collaboration with artist and mental health advocate Gina Harrison, Absolution takes viewers through the difficult process of facing and letting go of one’s fears. Realising the affective nature of her own fears, Camille delved deep into collective pain of the feminine as a source. The images expose Camille’s experiences and healing of past wounds regarding a fear of childbirth and motherhood, but also address issues related to wellness and mental health, which are often concealed due to social and cultural stigmas.
The artist intends to show how in embracing and exploring darkness, we can find liberation and eventual progression, freeing oneself from patterns and ideologies that exist as harmful limitations. Although the images still carry Camille’s signature technical style, they are a departure from her editorial and still life work – remaining as natural as possible in order to honour the female form.
I spoke with Camille by telephone about the exhibition.
Tell us about how this exhibition concept developed
The concept for Absolution developed through my personal journey of spiritual and psychological transformation and change over the past few years. I had huge fears surrounding childbirth and motherhood and I didn’t know why but I couldn’t find the desire or connection to the mother within myself. I knew I was approaching the end of my child birthing years and I had become disconnected in my life and allowed myself to fall into patterns of avoidance and unconsciousness. This led me into crisis within my relationship and into seeking healing and connection again. Through a lot of hard work, I dove deeply into self-discovery and healing work.
The journey took me in many different directions including the less traditional methods of plant medicines from South America including ayahuasca, San Pedro and peyote, kambo and temazcal sweat lodges.
In surrendering quite often purging is all part of the process. It allows a physical and energetic release, allowing a cleansing of trapped emotional trauma, past life memories or karma and allows the vessel (you) to empty and be ready to receive truth and be connected to one’s source.
Some of the deepest work I did alongside the plant medicine was with a teacher here in London who helped me find the nature of being within love in the self. Then, [we began] exploring the opposite: the shadow and the aspects of my unconscious, darker self. He taught me yoga and [about] the tree of life and enabled me to go on past life journeys where I found understanding on where my fears surrounding becoming a mother were rooted. In this understanding, I could completely release myself from the unconscious fears, thus coming into the essence of Being in the self here and now. A deep healing had taken place.
In this deeply personal exhibition, I have endeavoured to weave through my experiences from this spiritual journey to expose myself within my work in a more authentic, raw and revealing way.
As a photographer, having worked in fashion for many years, I felt it was time to let go of the fears of revealing my true vision to the world and to embrace my inner goddess, shadow and light. I see this exhibition as a marker in my career moving me into my next phase of life: embracing being an artist and a mother.
Please tell us about your fears about birth and motherhood
I always had a deep fear and anxiety of being ripped apart and dying in childbirth or not being able to keep a baby alive. I imagined I would be a very anxious, overprotective mother because of the fear of my baby dying and I put off having children for many years partly due to these fears. I had decided a long time ago that if I ever did have a baby, I would go straight for a caesarean section to avoid the risk of being ripped apart.
The media also plays a massive part in instilling fear around giving birth, depicting horror scenes in most movies and TV shows and reinforcing fear through various religious iconographic images. It takes away the trust in our amazing bodies, and intuition that it is a natural process we are very capable of going through.
And your pregnancy/the birth/post-natal experience?
My pregnancy was not an easy time as I suffered from morning sickness from about six weeks in until the day I gave birth; I became very accustomed to my view of the toilet bowl. It meant that I had to go underground and rest a lot, not able to work or do much at all.
I had just started a nine month training course to become certified as an ecstatic dance teacher when I became pregnant. I’ve always had a passion for dance and for spiritual journeying and this combined both things. Part of the course required me to dance daily doing a shamanic shake to open the third eye and release trapped emotional stress from the body. Through the process of the dance I was able to connect with the soul that was growing inside me in a beautiful cosmic way and in moving my body and pelvis and dancing with my baby I believe it helped me birth him without drugs.
I had a fear of giving birth in a big, London NHS hospital and after learning about the increased rates of induction, caesarean and intervention once you stepped through the hospital doors, I started to investigate homebirth.
After meeting the homebirth team from Homerton Hospital, I felt confident and calm about an easy birth in my comfy home. This was a huge departure from my previous fears around giving birth; the fact that I had no fear now and wanted to do it all naturally at home with a birthing doula and my husband was quite miraculous. I had decided I wanted an ecstatic birth and I was going to get it!
I was two weeks overdue and one day before they wanted me to go into hospital, it began. During the seven hour labour at home, I moved my pelvis and hips in circular motions as I had done in my ecstatic dance and used my voice to call through the contractions. The contractions moved quickly and for the last four hours my contractions were one minute apart so there was no time to rest. I moved between the bathroom and hanging off the sink or sitting on the toilet and the downstairs fireplace mantel. My birth doula had to push her fists into my pelvis hard to help with the pain. When I finally got into the pool for the last time and knelt against the side my breath slowed and my voice got quieter, I breathed my baby out slowly and ecstatically (according to my doula) into the water where I caught him. I laid back in shock with this little beautiful creature laid across my chest. I stayed in the water with him for the next 40 minutes, still connected by the umbilical cord and waited for the placenta to be born.
Amazingly, I didn’t tear and I was so over the moon to have my successful homebirth and a beautiful healthy boy in my arms.
The weeks after the birth are quite a blur; it really is quite an intense moment in time being in that bubble with your newborn and learning to be a mummy. It was blissful, exhausting, emotional and physically demanding, but also so special. It was amazing having my parents here from New Zealand to help, and my husband, who is very hands-on in helping. I found the love grew day by day rather than be a massive hit of oxytocin at the moment of the birth. I chose to cocoon myself in a cloud of cotton wool with my baby for six months. Not trying to do too much, but just being in the moment with him. I feel a real sense of calm and contentment and beautiful purpose in life.
How do you think the media’s addressing of motherhood and mental health issues is evolving?
I think the portrayal of women giving birth within the media needs addressing to present a more balanced view [by] not just showing the dramatic painful scenes with women screaming in agony, but showing the easy calm births that take place with no medical intervention [editor’s note: a cultural shift promoting ‘natural birth’ has existed for some time, alongside a recent backlash against this movement].
I have found that there is a growing number of positive motherhood blogs and websites producing relevant and supportive content, but not a huge amount of news and media surrounding the issue of postnatal depression and what it’s like becoming a new mother. It is such a vulnerable and often lonely time for women, making it so easy to slip into having depression and mental health issues.
How did you meet Gina?
I met Gina in 2015 whilst shooting a cosmetic campaign for Kryolan [a make-up brand]. The story of the campaign was the story of Persephone, the queen of the underworld. It was a concept I had pitched to the company as I felt a great affinity with the Persephone archetype and her journey of acceptance of the darkness and underworld bringing her liberation. Gina blew me away with her ability to get into character, and be in tune with something much deeper than many other models. Her movements and expressions enthralled me and I felt a symbiotic flow when we worked together.
Tell us about the collaboration – how did you work together?
We met again at the exhibition for the Kryolan campaign and decided we would love to work on a project together. Having Gina in my mind when the concept for the exhibition solidified, I knew she would be amazing to collaborate with in this intimate project. Right from the start, she inspired me to go deeper with my writing and backstory so we could create something more powerful and conceptual. We had an immediate sense of connection and found ourselves getting lost in the moment with each shot. We did three main shoots for the exhibition, one of which was just Gina and I, where it really felt to me that she just naturally found expressions that exactly took me back into the memory of the experience. It felt quite magical and beautifully feminine. She allowed herself to be vulnerable and naked with the work, which I so admire and am thankful for. We became very close through the process of creating the work as we shared our selves with each other and the work almost became therapy for both of us.
Has any mental health stigma in fashion or around body image influenced your work?
In this work, I wanted to show the real, naked beauty in the female body without using post-production, taking a step away from the unattainable beauty and body shape that is created within the fashion and beauty industry through highly retouched images. Gina has a beautiful body shape, which was so refreshing to shoot and embrace within this work.
Which women inspire and have influenced you?
In terms of female artists who have inspired me I would say Frida Kahlo is top of my list. Her surrealist portrayal of her deepest self, beauty and pain has influenced me to feel confident to expose my inner visions and feelings that I felt were too dark to show the world in the past.
I have some amazing women friends I consider to be soul sisters, who are on the same journey seeking healing and beauty in this life [and] who offer me constant inspiration and support.
How has your relationship with your mother inspired or influenced you?
My mother is an amazing inspiration to me, and huge support in my life. Her sense of social responsibility, love of family and community and beautiful creativity in everything she does is a blessing for all who know her. I always admired the work she did within women’s health: she is an author of two books relating to osteoporosis and menopause, looking at the medicalisation of aging women. She is a warrior for the people and this has inspired me to want to help educate others to ask questions, not just accept the status quo fed to us by our doctors.
What advice would you give and what would you like this exhibition to say to women, particularly mothers, whose pregnancy, birth or experience during this time triggers mental health issues including anxiety, depression, OCD and psychosis?
I would love this exhibition to inspire women with mental health issues to seek their own healing through addressing their subconscious fears and finding a deeper connection and love with the self and the shadow. It is not easy to undertake these journeys but ultimately so important if we are to strive to have a happier life, especially when bringing new souls into this world, so we can avoid transferring our own issues to our children and continuing unconscious patterns within them.
What do you hope that viewers of the exhibition will take away from this?
I hope this work can inspire women and men to get in touch with honour the creative power of the mother. By exposing my own journey of liberation – from fears to forgiveness of the self – I hope to encourage other women who may be in a similar place of pain, anxiety or depression to undertake such a journey of healing and transformation.
Absolution by Camille Sanson is showing at the Herrick Gallery in Mayfair from 29 January – 3 February 2017. Camille and Gina are in conversation from 5-7pm on 3 February and there is a private view on 1 February from 6-8pm. For more information about the exhibition and Camillle Sanson, go to her website.
Picture one is a still from the exhibition and shows a woman’s torso and upper thighs. The model’s skin seems to be covered in grey and white paint, while their abdomen is covered in black paint. The model’s hands are both placed on their stomach and they stand in front of a grey background.
Picture two is a still from the exhibition and is a side shot of a model curled up in a ball on the floor, with their head in their hands, and their face concealed. Again, they appear to be covered in grey paint.
Picture three is an upper-body shot of a woman, who appears to be covered in pale grey paint. Her hair is slicked back and her arms are crossed over her body, with her hands touching her face. Her eyes are closed and she looks like a stone statue. She stands in front of a black background. All images used with permission of Camille Sanson.