About Denise Felkin
Denise is an award winning British photographer based in Brighton and the creator of the book Mum’s Not The Word.
Denise’s photography migrates between creative portraiture and documentary photography, driven by research led projects and collaborations with her subjects to create cutting edge images that speak out about current issues, to reveal a truthful voice, and promote unity, equality and compassion.
Denise has been nominated for many awards including the Association of Photographers, Magnum and Photo London Graduate Award and International Photography Award.
Mum’s Not The Word (MNTW) was a finalist in the Sony World Photography Awards, the National Open Art competition, and the Julia Margaret Cameron award. The Guardian, and I paper, have both published articles on MNTW.
It has been exhibited in Cologne, Barcelona, Athens. London, Blackpool and Doncaster. and Bologna with the Hundred Heroines who are a initiative whom celebrate women in photography past, present and future.
MNTW has been on TV, BBC South East today, and France 24 , The 51 Percent TV show, and many BBC radio interviews for example Dorset Oxford, London, Sussex
For a living Denise teaches photography to adults, which involves working with marginalised people.
Although Denise reproduces consistently through her work she has never had the desire to have a child, and she label’s herself as being childfree.
Anotherhood is about turning up the volume of the voices of women who do not have children. Can you tell us why you wish to share your story with Anotherhood?
I’m not just sharing my story, I’m sharing her story and the voices of many women out there who are or yet to feel empowered by my photo book.
I’ve met women that have been ashamed of their childless status or felt they have no purpose in life. I’m here to spread the message that you are not alone.
It’s a story that stretches generations but has been ignored in historic records. In the history of art, photography and the media, women without children have been misrepresented or ignored.
In historic times the richer women would brush against the idea of childbearing as it had such a high death rate. Florence Nightingale was childless, Elizabeth 1, Mary 1 and Jane Austin. We know Frida Kahlo was because she painted a foetus to explore her feeling of loss.
My heroines; Debbie Harry, Siouxsie Sioux, Joan Jet, Bo Derek, Dolly Parton are all women without children.
When I began thinking about ‘Mums Not the Word’ (MNTW) 7 years ago, it was a joy to read articles on this subject in The Guardian by Helen Mirren or Tracey Emin, and as my research progressed I discovered the work of Jody Day.
Jody Day runs an organisation called Gateway Women and has written many articles and books on the subject of being a woman without children, and not by choice.
MNTW is the first publication to visually document the multitude of reasons why women do not have children capturing this movement. MNTW is creating awareness and starting to create a dialogue around women who do not have children.
In your book Mums Not The Word it notes you label yourself as childfree because you do not want kids, can you share with us what led you to that decision?
I was born into what became a single parent family, my father died when I was three years old.
I am the youngest of four girls, and I observed my mother from that early age raising us on her own and I know it wasn’t easy for her, and I know it wasn’t for us either.
From a very early age, which I’m guessing is around the age of nine, I heard the clear message from my mum “don’t come home pregnant” as she would say it to my sister who is 6 years older then me.
That message got drilled into me from that very early age, it was always in my head and I thought, “Oh god what if I get pregnant.”
When I was nineteen I’d already left home but I decided to I wanted to go home to take all my old toys out of the cupboard and give them to my friend’s daughter.
My mum asked, “What are you doing that for?”
I said, “I want to share that with my friends daughter!”
She responded by saying, “…but don’t you want to give them to your children when you grow up?”
I said, “No, I don’t want children.”
My Mum dismissed me straight away saying, “Oh, you’ll feel differently when you’re older,” … but I never did.
I don’t think I’ve ever been in the right relationship to have children. I thought that if I did get pregnant I would cross that bridge when I came to it.
Even if I had met someone, I don’t think I would of changed my mind.
I’m now 52, and I have no regrets.
That will be really powerful for a lot of the women to hear, that you’re 52 and you have no regrets. I think that’s what is a concern for a lot of women actually, that they might regret it.
Through your photography, you’ve documented women who are child free either by choice circumstance or biology. Can you tell us a little about how you came to have the idea for the book and the concept behind it?
Whilst studying on my MA in Photojournalism, I was put into a group to create a magazine as part of the module. It so happened it was all females in our group.
We decided to make a magazine that was about women, but not about clothes or makeup like you normally see in magazines, but issues that affected Women. During that module that’s when I came up with the idea. However, I decided not to take it on then as I felt I did not have enough time to fully explore the idea as MNTW has taken me 5 years in total.
I used to teach homeless people as part of my outreach work as photographer, and I started a project before I was on the MA within this community.
There was one lady that I used to photograph called Jennifer. We made this project called Living Rough, Rough Living. It was about what it is like to be homeless in Brighton. Jennifer and I did a few projects together over the course of my MA but once I had finished Jennifer wanted me to create a story called ‘The Street Mother’, which was about her.
Jennifer didn’t have children, it was to be about her relationship with this young man that she met in the homeless hostel and they had this mother son relationship, a really beautiful friendship. Fran (the young man) had featured in some of my photographs in the past.
Jennifer now had her own home and every time we would arrange to meet, Fran wouldn’t turn up, which is not unusual considering he was homeless and living in a homeless hostel as it is a chaotic lifestyle.
Whilst we waited for Fran to turn up, on several occasions, I took photographs of Jennifer and created another project, which resulted in a story of Jennifer’s alcoholism. On another occasion Jennifer and I started to talk about not having children, we had had lots of conversations about not having children so it wasn’t new territory. This was the start of MNTW as I just knew I wanted to make this project.
It was very experimental to start with, the first time I tried it with Jennifer we tried it with her clothes on but it didn’t look right.
My set up was not sophisticated in the beginning, I photographed Jennifer laid on a mattress, whilst I balanced on a chest of drawers leaning over her with the camera.
It worked that time round, but if I had done that another 49 times, which I did with the others then I probably would of had a few broken bones and cameras.
In order to capture the 49 other women I set up in my studio two lighting stands with a horizontal bar running between the two, and my camera clamped to the top. I had this all tethered to my computer, so I could sit and take the photographs. I felt this was less intimidating. It meant I was always staring at the screen and not looking directly at the subject that I was photographing.
Sadly Jennifer died by the end of the year. That was in 2015, but it is always very special that she was the first woman I photographed for MNTW.
It sounds as though it’s a very emotional connection for you?
Yes it is, I like the fact the project has been doing really well and I’m sure if there is a heaven up there, she’s pushing it to do well too.
That’s really touching thank you for sharing that, it brings a different depth to the book when you know the real human narrative behind it and the relationships involved.
Do you think it was hard for the women to come up with such a succinct testimony?
Because of the nature of how the photography was done, I would say a lot of people turned up really nervous. Not all people, but a lot. I always had to be really sensitive about how I would approach them, because some people might just tell me a little bit of their story in their email and I didn’t want to just say, are you childless or are you childfree because I didn’t want to just label them.
I think I might have done it once early on and I just thought that’s not the way to broach it. So first, it was about getting them as comfortable as possible in the studio so I could photograph them, and that they would feel okay about taking their clothes off in front of me as well.
People would sit down, and we would talk about it, some people might struggle with it, sometimes it might just come out quite quickly and others it might take two hours to do the shoot. And some people asked if they could send it after to have time to reflect on the experience.
It sounds as though the process was quite cathartic for some of the women, as they lay on the mattress, lying bare, very vulnerable but very powerful at the same time.
Exactly, one lady named Lissa, who said, “I prefer cats,” noted after that she felt very empowered by it.
Many people after also said they felt empowered by it.
Some felt they’d never had a purpose in life, and now they felt they have a purpose, by being involved in the project and that’s amazing feedback.
You speak clearly to the social stigmatisation of women who do not have children, and I wonder if you have personal experience of this yourself?
Sometimes I might be made to feel I am less of a woman because I don’t have children or being told that you would never understand what love is, until you have given birth.
And people assume that you want children.
People might touch your arm in pity, “oh poor you”, which there is no poor me because its my choice.
Also being told that you can’t as a single, woman, you can’t go onto any housing waiting list. You get asked two questions.
- Do you have children?
- Do you have a mental, health position?
“Well you can’t go on the waiting list”
That’s happened to me a few times, loosing my home because of not having children.
I’ve lived in a shared house years ago, and another resident had a new-born baby and wanted to have my room but I said I did not wish to swap, as I liked my space away from the noise of the child in the house. Mediation was suggested as a way to resolve it.
I went and got housing advice, and I was told because I was up against a woman with a child that they would always stand in favour of a woman with a child when it comes down to housing.
I didn’t even bother with the mediation because it was all very embarrassing. I just handed in my notice the next day, but just knowing that I didn’t stand anywhere legally was annoying.
By pursuing this project you wish to change attitudes and break down stereotypes about women who do not have children. I wonder has the decision not to have children impacted the way people may perceive you, including those who are important to you?
My family and friends have accepted it. My mother died in 2011, so she doesn’t even know about this project; maybe I had to wait until after my mother died before I could create this. My sister has said since, Mum would be proud.
In terms of my friends, I’ve known my adult life, they kind of know where I’m coming from because they have know from the beginning for all these years I didn’t want children.
And they said to me, in recent years, “you know, you did it Denise you said you didn’t want to have children and you don’t have them.”
They kind of congratulate me, which is good.
Your work shows the women photographed naked in the foetal position. For me, this brings up the importance of being a woman, and the relationship that we have with our bodies and how this may differ for women who do have children. So I wonder has not having children impacted the way you view your body?
It took ages to create or even accept my image, because I am not the sort of photographer that turns the camera on myself.
Saying that Jo Spence’s book, ‘Putting Myself in the Picture’ had a massive impact on my work. To be part of MNTW I photographed myself, three times.
I put myself in, because as I mentioned earlier, some people might turn up really nervous and my job was to make them feel comfortable.
So I would say things to them to reassure them, like, its ok I’m going to be in the book as well.
I am one those people that I hope that if I say something I’m going to do it. I don’t like to go back on my word. I did not want them looking at the book saying, “where is she?”
I wouldn’t want that to happen.
First of all I photograph myself, now normally I just hate photographs of me full stop. I’ve never done a nude shoot before.
The first time I photographed myself at the very beginning of the project, probably in the first year, I really hated it. I hated the image of myself I was so shocked to see myself from that angle. I put it aside on a hard-drive that got accidentally deleted a year or two ago.
When it was coming to the end of the project I knew that I had to photograph myself again.
It was around very early June, I had just come out of a long-term relationship, so I had gone through a bit of a difficult time and I had lost weight. I photographed myself and I still hated the picture but I thought, I am just going to have to put up with, it’s my body, I can’t use everybody else’s pictures and just not put my picture in there as well.
Then it came to the end of the project, but I still was a little bit iffy about this picture that I shot. It was now October and I had lost 2 stone I was eating really healthy, and exercising.
So this one last time I was the fiftieth participant to be shot.
I photographed myself, and I actually thought ‘that’s okay’.
One thing I have noticed is when people view the photographs they kind of expect us to have perfect bodies. Like, it’s only women’s bodies that get ruined because they had children.
I’ve had childbearing women saying, “Oh, she has stretch marks too, she has a big body too.”
Just because we don’t have children we still have put on weight, we still have stretch marks as well.
That’s the one thing that was always really important in MNTW was to show real women and real bodies, there is no airbrushing involved.
I like the fact there is no airbrushing and its presenting women’s real bodies and actually how maybe women who have had children don’t understand actually our bodies also change over time. I’ve been marked since I was about 14 all around the sides of my hips, I call them my tiger stripes.
Is there a connection between the women being naked in the foetal position relating to vulnerability and the potential how women who do not have children may be feeling like an outsider not conforming to the expectations women within society?
The foetus and the way the body is positioned on the bed can be read in a number of ways.
The bed is a place of birth, death, sleep, sexual activity and contemplation.
We all begin this world as a foetus form; the uterus is the centre of the universe. I aim to create a link between menopausal women and the unborn child, with a timeless quality.
In the early stages of the project, outsiders would comment on how the subject looked vulnerable and ask why hadn’t I photographed women looking high powered. The more women I met, the more I realised how vulnerable we all are. Some got in touch who really wanted to be involved but could not do the nudity and questioned if they could do it clothed. I would think, without saying, have you ever seen a foetus with clothes on?
In terms of your question, it is a good point, yes we do feel outsiders and I’m pleased that message has got across. However that was not my initial intention, but it did come across organically which I like. When I create photos I stage most of the details and then when something accidental / unconsciously happens, that is usually the image choose.
I think I got offended at the beginning when people were saying they looked really vulnerable.
But it’s just a fact that we are vulnerable, we are fragile, but the foetus itself is really vulnerable isn’t it.
I think when you look at the photographs that your not necessarily looking at a photograph, you’re feeling the photograph and it’s the foetal image taking us back to what we already know. That’s what I meant when I said the Uterus is the centre of the universe.
So we’re feeling that from, our solar plexus when we’re seeing the photographs.
It feels in creating the book you would have heard a variety of narratives, but for you do you feel you have experienced challenges, by not having children?
The society pressure, housing rights, being told I do not know what love is.
When I was travelling India, which I did twice on my own, male strangers consistently ask you a script of personal questions;
What’s your name?
Where are you from?
Where is your husband?
Where are your children?
I would respond, “My name is Denise, I’m from Brighton in England. I don’t have a husband or have any children.”
When you’ve been asked that a zillion times and they are so judgmental like there’s something wrong with you because you don’t have a husband or children. In the end, I put a fake wedding ring on my finger and said my husband’s in Goa; I’m meeting him further down the journey later with my children. I just got tired of answering the same questions over and over again, they just could not accept that I wasn’t married, I didn’t have any children, because I was travelling on my own as well, they thought there was something wrong with me.
We wish to celebrate the lives of women who do not have children and to share that there are positives so can you share some positives that you found to not having children?
Photography, my career and the opportunity to make Mums Not The Word.
I did an event here at Phoenix, where my studio is called Spotlight. As Phoenix resident artists we talk about our practices and I got this feedback after the event.
“… The feedback and discussion from your book Denise demonstrates the compelling photographic narrative, one, which has captured a mass audience far beyond the art world. So crucially important and address impacts on our most defining, issues of our time.”
If you could change one thing about not having children and how not having children is viewed. What would you wish to change?
Just to spread the word that women are not just baby making machines, and we should not be judged if we want children or not.
And to challenge us being ignored or disregarded across the history of the arts, society, and the media.
Most importantly, expectance, it’s okay not to have children, and it’s rude to ask why.
Anotherhood is all about connecting women with shared experiences, I wonder can you share the thing Denise that you have found that have helped you to embrace your life without children.
On than early shoot five years ago, I had three participants come to my studio – Kit, Ellen (who is on the front cover) and Lissa. After I’d photographed them and was checking the final images, they were all sitting around half naked on the mattress in my studio, congratulating each other on not having children and sharing stories with one another on not having children. With me in the room that was four people in the room with a positive opinion on not having children. All my life I’ve never been in a room where so many people were congratulating each other on not having children, and that was quite mind blowing. It was such a magical moment I wish I had recorded it.
Also finding on the Gateway Women website and their list of women that don’t have children, it’s absolutely amazing.
Any podcast books that you found that have helped you on your journey, or just anything that inspires you really Denise?
When the drummers were women – Layne Redmond
Women who Run with the Wolves – Clarissa Pinkola Estes
The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood
Jody Day – Living The Life Unexpected
Samantha Walsh a participant of MNTW – blog on Huffington post, social media group Non Mum Network.
You’re a British artist so are there any Artists that really inspire you Denise?
My biggest famous photographer, of all time, I absolutely admire and I’ve loved her since the day I learnt about her over 30 years ago is Diane Arbus.
I love the diversity, I’m inspired by the way she just gets in people’s faces and just gets this haunted expression across their faces and I still absolutely love her today.
Jo Spence, she made a book called ‘Putting Myself in the Picture.’
Frida Kahlo created a self-portrait with a foetus, so she kind of addresses her experience childlessness through her painting
Tracey Emmin’s – Unmade Bed.
Botticelli – Birth of Venus.
To find out more about Denise please have a look at the links below.
Featured photograph of Denise by Kiki Streitberger