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A body of work: Photographer captures mothers after they give birth

Ellen Mann her baby. | Ashlee Wells Jacksphoto

Ellen Mann and her baby. | Ashlee Wells Jackson photo

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Updated: October 2, 2013 12:54PM

Ellen Mann says she left an abusive relationship while four months pregnant. And when she stepped into Ashlee Wells Jackson’s Lake View photography studio with her daughter nearly two years later, she felt empowered.

Mann, who converted to Islam four years ago and adheres to her faith’s traditional dress, posed in biker shorts and a long-sleeved T-shirt, her belly exposed, as she held her daughter Amina in her henna-painted hands.

Mann, 26, who hails from the suburbs, is one of nearly 100 women (and counting) who have posed for Jackson’s new book, “4th Trimester Bodies Project,” a photo documentary aimed at showing the “beauty inherent” in the changes to women’s bodies by motherhood, childbirth and breastfeeding.

“As much as I wanted to support the project and to show the diversity of women, I also needed this project for me. And it was very nerve-wracking, but also very empowering,” Mann said, adding: “I knew if I could see it with someone else’s eyes that there was a good chance I could see the beauty in my body.”

Jackson, 30, a pin-up photographer, began the project after experiencing a traumatic pregnancy. While pregnant with twins, just one survived, born prematurely and spending her first months of life in a neonatal intensive care unit.

“I just felt completely like my body was ruined, that my body had failed me,” Jackson, a mother of three, said. “I felt like less of a woman, less of a mother because of everything we had been through, and somewhere in my head in healing and dealing with the pain, I realized I wasn’t alone.”

She decided to use her photography skills to illustrate her strength as a mother and to show other mothers they are not alone. Her first photo features herself and her then 7-month-old daughter.

She posted the image on Facebook with her plans to photograph mothers of all types — surrogates, birth mothers and adoptive mothers from all walks of life. The response, Jackson says, was amazing.

She’s now booked solid until February with 1,600 emails still awaiting her reply. And she has plans to shoot in Portland, Ore., Los Angeles, Kansas City, Kan., and Indiana, among other cities in the country, before publishing 250 mothers in the first volume of the book.

“I feel like what we’re doing is totally about honesty and transparency . . . we have mothers who have left abusive relationships while pregnant, women who have experienced eating disorders, who are recovering alcoholics, who are just triumphant, who have overcome so much,” Jackson said. “But we also have women who have had happy pregnancies and births, who never had a rainy day in their lives. ... I think their stories are just as important as the other ones.”

Jackson said she remembers all of the mothers, but some stick out. Like a mother of nine — six biological and three adopted — in a multiracial family. She’s photographed breast-feeding her two youngest twins.

Sharla Bender, 35, of Plainfield, walked into Jackson’s studio after canceling several times. The zaftig Bender walked in and immediately told Jackson “If I’m not what you’re looking for, I can turn around and leave.” Jackson said, “Absolutely not, you’re perfect.”

Bender struggled with infertility for five years and had a difficult pregnancy. Just like Jackson, she, too, felt her body had failed her.

“I just felt like my body kept betraying me. I had five plus years of betrayal but then when my son came into the world — this beautiful baby that even the doctors called a miracle — it was really time to celebrate what a wonderful job my body did for me,” Bender said. “And Ashlee’s project was a great way to celebrate that.”

Bender is one of the happiest-looking moms in Jackson’s portraits, posing with her then 6-month-old son, William. When she saw her pictures, she immediately felt proud: “It was just a perfect embodiment of how I feel about being a mom. It’s just amazing every day.”


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