Motherhood is a topic widely explored in photography, with artists such as Sally Mann, Elinor Carrucci and Rineke Dijstra tackling the complex aspects of this formative relationship. Visualizing these tensions is regularly met with criticism, but the theme continues to generate new interpretations by contemporary artists on a regular basis, who present their personal experiences in hopes of overturning stereotypical visualizations of a mother and their child. One such photographer is Cate Wnek, whose work Raising Goosebumps earned her a nomination as a finalist in this year’s LensCulture Art Photography Awards.
In Raising Goosebumps, Wnek explores the protective impulse she feels for her children as a mother. The photographer depicts dreamy and ethereal settings that seem like they were taken in an alternative dimension. By embracing this aesthetic, Wnek is able to photograph her own emotions, rather than resorting to the candid scenes that define most photographs of children taken by their parents. In this interview, Wnek talks to LensCulture about her mindset during her creative process, and how this series helped her embrace the complex emotions that come with motherhood.
LensCulture: Your project primarily deals with the fears and vulnerabilities of motherhood. What inspired this work? How did your personal experience prompt you to document these emotions with your camera?
Cate Wnek: I came about this project gradually. I started taking pictures of my children as they grew up, much like any other parent, except I experimented with my photography as they played around me. But there came a time when that stopped being fulfilling for me – I felt a block, and had increased uncertainty about the purpose of my practice. That’s when I realized that the pictures weren’t about documenting the children anymore. Instead, they became an exploration of fragility and beauty, and ultimately: fear and vulnerability.
LC: What happened when you realized this shift had taken place?
CW: It took some time for me to understand. I have found that through continuing to make photographs and write, the answers are often already within me. Being engrossed in this work, I am able to reconnect to my own childlike wonder and imagination, making my way through the bumpy days. I’m able to discover new ways of navigating groundlessness by seeing things more magically. It’s almost like that feeling you get when you’re just starting to fall asleep, and you suddenly wake up because you feel like you’re falling. This project connects me to my inner self while feeling butterflies in my stomach, and that’s when new ideas begin to surface. Ambiguity and discomfort have been the catalyzing sparks in my process.
LC: Raising Goosebumps visualizes an alternate world in its images. How would you characterize this world? Is it a world that you inhabit alone as a mother, or one that you inhabit along with your children?
CW: Oh yes, it’s just that. Raising Goosebumps is a mystical, mysterious, magical alternative world that is fragile, ephemeral and reflexive. Whispers of danger mingle with wishes for hope, and curiosity leads this journey. The images become mirrors dangling from a mobile swaying in the breeze. The work embodies an experiential escape. It’s funny because it definitely feels like a world that I inhabit alone. But perhaps my children and I do occupy it together – it’s a way that we can share our dreams and fears.
LC: Are there any photographers who inspire your work? I personally see echoes of Sally Mann in the way you present your fears directly to your viewer.
CW: Both photographers and writers provide meaningful inspiration for my work. Writers like Elizabeth Gilbert, Rebecca Solnit and Annie Dillard, to name a few, as well as poets Emily Dickinson and William Stafford. I love how these writers are wide open to magic and wonder, brimming with curiosity and discovery.
And yes, Sally Mann was the photographer who made me want to pursue this medium for the rest of my life. I was initially drawn to the beauty of her images, but then her work touched me on a deeper level when I realized she was managing her fears with photography. Her images of Emmett especially resonate with me, and her ability to capture fleeting innocence and steadfast tenacity.
I also turn to Rinko Kawauchi’s work for the spaces in between more intense moments. I adore the way she pairs images together in her book Illuminance. My softer images are inspired by her, and I see them as a release of tension, like a steamy exhale on a cold winter’s day.
LC: Two emotions you deal with a lot in your work are fear and heartache, specifically with regard to watching your children grow up. How do you feel this series has helped you explore the boundaries between these two emotions?
CW: I think fear is a part of the overall heartache. These emotions are delicately different, but inherently interconnected, especially with the passage of time. But through this work, I’ve discovered ways to partition fear off to the side, making more room for beauty and positive possibilities. I do this by using fear as a motivator. I redirect myself towards curiosity and the compass of my heartstrings. Through making this work, I am externalizing my inner self in search of signs and wisdom.
LC: What did you learn about yourself as a mother as you produced this series?
CW: I learned that we are meant to struggle, and in the midst of this chaos, we gain clarity. I’m now compelled to find new ways to be comfortable in the discomfort of reality. We have fear and we have vulnerability – we can’t shake them. The creative process has taught me that without them, we would just flatline.
LC: How do you anticipate these images changing as your children grow older?
CW: I think it’s more that the work will evolve as my imagination wanders. Lately, I’ve been drawn to making images that are so dark that what we’re looking at is unclear. I’ve also been photographing thorns, dead trees, and spindly leafless branches. I am not sure what that is all about, but I am definitely drawn to them in a strong way.
LC: How long do you plan to continue this series?
CW: As long as I possibly can. I imagine that at some point, I’ll look at the work I am making and realize that it has moved towards something else, but for now it will be where I continue to dwell. It offsets the duties and responsibilities life throws at me.
LC: What do you hope viewers will take away from viewing these photos?
CW: It’s my dream that they walk away with the feeling of having had a meaningful, deeply personal encounter. I hope the viewer arrives at a point where they can’t think of anything else, and have an experiential escape within themselves. As I continue to delve deeper into myself, I hope this work resonates more and more with everyone who sees it.
If you like this work, be sure to see this remarkable view of childhood by French photographer Alain Laboile.