As a child, Andi Gáldi Vinkó remembers being afraid of moths. But when she picked up a camera, she realised she could get so close to the insects that she’d forget to be scared. She describes feeling a similar fear when cutting her newborn’s fingernails — so delicate and fragile — for the first time. So she picked up her camera again. From then on she has been documenting these small, novel moments to help her adjust to the nerve-racking first months of motherhood.
“I took photos of everything I thought would be important if I ever wanted to talk about this whole experience,” says the Hungarian photographer about her ongoing project. This included the early milestones that come with parenting, as well as the tears, the dirty diapers, and sleepless nights that seem so neverending.
A month after having her daughter in 2017, she travelled to London from Budapest for a one-day shoot. As a freelance photographer, she was tentative about being away from her newborn so soon after giving birth, knowing she’d need to take regular breaks to pump milk. “And still, what surprised me the most,” Andi recalls, “is that there was not one place in the airport where I could pump. I couldn’t even find a socket to plug my pump in.”
Photographers documenting children run the risk of being overly sentimental. In the age of Instagram, it is all too easy only to share the positives. Andi’s photos, though, are intimate and tender, whilst also capturing the chaos and humour of family life. Family is important — this was the message with which Andi was raised. “I don’t know whether it’s an Eastern European attitude, a Jewish attitude, or something specific to my upbringing,” she tells me.
One thing she did not expect was that becoming a mother would also teach her afresh what it means to be someone’s child. “It made me look at my mother and her generation in a different way,” she continues. Andi was brought up by a single mother, who raised three kids after the fall of communism, whilst taking care of Andi’s grandmother.
While it’s not an explicit aspect of the work, the photo story is as political as it is deeply personal. Contemporary attitudes to motherhood can leave women, especially young parents, feeling isolated. “If [something] doesn’t affect everybody and is not everybody’s concern, suddenly it’s not important,” the photographer notes. New mothers know that so many other women before them have experienced this, but when they find themselves in the situation, they are astonished at how little information there is available.
The choice of whether or not to have a child is especially politicised in today’s populist Hungary as in other conservative-leaning nations around the world. Last month, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán promised to scrap income tax for Hungarian mothers with four or more children. The thinking behind this was not to alleviate pressures on women, but to counteract what his far-right government sees as the malignant demographic influence of Hungary’s migrant population. Though her photo story is meant to reflect the universal joys and pains of motherhood, Andi is no less alarmed at the reproductive politics of her home country: “This whole concept of ‘making more children’ for money makes you feel a character in The Handmaid’s Tale; you are only regarded as a womb. You can get loans against the number of children you have in a country where you might not actually want to raise any.”
While it may seem simplistic to point out just how much women’s stories are silenced, it remains true — and we are even more likely to disregard traumatic or otherwise difficult times. For Andi, these unconscious prejudices explain why so many of the experiences associated with motherhood go undocumented and forgotten. “The first year of motherhood is so temporary compared with the whole life you have to live.” People often forget painful memories, and this is why Andi has been inseparable from her camera: “Even after breastfeeding, a year later you might not think about it.”
Two years since giving birth, editing the photos from those messy first months and taking control of the narrative has been empowering. Since she had the idea to consolidate her personal archive into this series, the photographer has opened up the project to other women, including their experiences using staged shoots or her signature diaristic photography. Her idea is to turn the photo story into a handy guide for new mothers. When she was pregnant, Andi bought many such guides, but confesses she didn’t think she’d need them. “Once you have a child, you won’t have time to read the books,” she points out — so the photo story becomes a visual reminder that you are not alone. You’re certainly not the first mother to find a stinky surprise in her bed, and you certainly won’t be the last.