November 28, 2019

The John Byrne Award Chats to Photographer Melissa Mitchell About Womanhood and Working with her Mum

Photographer Melissa Mitchell chats to The John Byrne Award about her shortlisted entry, ‘How to be a Woman in the 21st Century?’an intimate and moving series of portraits of her mother.


Your title question acknowledges that the experience and expectations of womanhood change over time. How do you think womanhood will have changed by the time you reach your mum’s age? How you would you like it to change?  

That’s an interesting question. Right now, I feel like we are at a point in history where the definition of womanhood is in flux. With the rise of campaigns like Free the Nipple and the #MeToo movement making headlines across the globe, there are now more conversations opening up about women’s rights. There has also been more recognition and acceptance of women and femaleidentifying people from the LGBTQ+ community in recent years. I hope that, by the time I reach my mother’s age, my gender won’t define me or limit the opportunities available to me; and that gender-based inequality will be a thing of the past. 


You describe your relationship with your mother as ‘imperfect and intense’. Has the process of producing your book given you any insight into why our relationships with our mothers are so complicated?  

When I was growing up, I thought I knew everything, and I felt that the advice my mother had to offer me was irrelevant and antiquated. She had no idea what it was like to be me or to be a young woman in the early days of Facebook and the Blackberry. As I grew older, I began to understand that a lot of what I was going through was intergenerational, and that there was value in my mother’s lived experience. For most of us, I think it takes a certain amount of growth and perspective to realise this. 

Did the process of making this project give you any insight into how your mother perceives you and your relationship? 

There is no way she would have stripped down in front of the lens for just anyone. The project required a level of trust between two souls, incomparable to any other relationship in my life. Working on this project was an incredible affirmation of the love that my mother has for me. We were also able to spend a lot of one-on-one time together – something that we don’t get to do very often now that I’ve left home. This time was spent free of distractions, allowing 

us to speak freely about some really personal subjects – like previous trauma, fears and insecurities – without judgement. 

What was it about the experience of taking your mum’s portrait that allowed you to have such a ‘positive and cathartic’ experience?  

Making portraits is something that I both enjoy and find incredibly challenging. As an introvert, I find it quite difficult to make conversation with new people; I always get very nervous before a shoot and feel like I have to put on my best, extroverted persona in order to break down those initial barriers. Photographing my mother meant that I could drop the act and just be myself, which was incredibly freeing. It was also challenging in many ways, as I was walking the line between being objective and emotional during the process of making the images. This came up frequently during the image selection – I wanted to work with images that were quite frank and emotive, but this often meant that the images I liked best, were not conventionally flattering. This necessitated a lot of negotiation between my mother and to eventually reach some kind of balance with the images. There are still days when we look at the pictures and she doesn’t like what she sees, but then there are other days when she feels incredibly proud and empowered by them. 


You touch on the relationship between vulnerability and empowerment in your description. Can you explain more about that?  

I think there is power in being open and honest about the things that make you feel vulnerable. It takes strength to be vulnerable, especially in a society where we now spend so much time crafting our physical and digital personas to portray the perfect existence. I think Brene Brown conceptualises this best in her TED Talk, The Power of Vulnerability, where she states that, “vulnerability is the core of shame and fear…(but) it’s also the birthplace of creativity, of belonging, of love”. I wanted this project to be an exercise in letting go of shame and fear, for both my mother and myself, in order for us to become our authentic selves and embrace our vulnerability. I also believe that being authentic in this way opens up greater possibilities for connection. Not only did this project bring my mother and I closer, it also encourages others to embrace their vulnerability and connect with one another on a deeper level.