The ‘Mother Gaze’ in Photography - Interview with Eye Mama Project founder Karni Arieli

Marianne Stenger
25th March 2022

Born out of the turmoil of the pandemic, the Eye Mama Project is giving mothers around the world a unique opportunity to share their experience of motherhood and provide an artistic and introspective glimpse into their homes and family lives. 

The project was founded by photographer, filmmaker and mother of two, Karni Arieli, in the midst of the UK’s strict lockdowns in 2020 and 2021. Her aim was to connect mothers at a time when most felt extremely isolated, while also documenting an important moment in history through the narrative of motherhood. 

“I was looking for the poetry in motherhood,” she says. “I wanted people to see all the different versions and stories of motherhood, which are really different from home to home. It’s a glimpse into hundreds of homes around the world.” 

Since the outbreak of war in Ukraine, Eye Mama Project has also become a platform for peaceful protest, with mothers from over 35 countries sharing their vision for peace under the hashtags #eyemamaproject and #mamasforpeace. 

We had the opportunity to speak to her about how the project got started and how she would like to see it continue to evolve. 

Image credits from top left: Irmina Walczak, Polly Alderton, Amy Woodward, Valeria Sigal, Michal Chelbin, Joscha Keijl, Karolina Cwik, Lisa Sorgini, Elinor Carucci.

First of all, could you tell us a little bit about yourself and how you got started as a photographer and filmmaker? 

I’m half British and half Israeli. I grew up in Israel and studied in Bezalel Academy of Art and Design, majoring in photography. I dabbled in fashion and art photography for a while and had a weekly column in some of the magazines and newspapers in Jerusalem. 

Eventually, I moved to London with my partner Saul, who was an animator at the time; partly for the creative opportunities, but also due to the political situation in Israel. There was a natural evolution from photography to film, using our joint talents to create casual fantasy using mixed media.

We made a few animated films and music videos that got some attention, including one for Micah P Hinson called ‘Beneath the Rose.’ This was before stop motion became really huge in music videos. Along the way we also made music videos for artists like Beth Orton, Jack Savoretti and The Staves, so it kind of evolved and I left the photography aside for a while. 

I was mainly just documenting my family and doing yearly portraits for my boys. I also do some photography with dancers, just because I enjoy it. But it wasn’t anything I was doing professionally over the last few years. Then the pandemic happened, and our lives changed. 

Image © Aniya Emtage

How did the idea for the Eye Mama Project first come about? 

The beginning of the pandemic was a really scary moment, especially for immigrants, who are out of their country and away from their family. It felt like the end of the world. 

Although we got a big commission from the British Film Institute (BFI) that we’re still working on, I felt I needed an immediate creative relief. I think I had to pick up my camera and start documenting to feel like I had some of the narrative or control back. It was sort of like getting my power back as a creative, and I started feeling less scared. So that’s where the Eye Mama Project started. 

I do think after having kids, I’m a little more anxious, and as a creative I’m a little more sensitive. I think a lot of creative people are. You can see that as a weakness or as a strength. 

But early on, I decided that I couldn’t let this fear conquer me. I knew I had to show leadership for my kids and be optimistic and creative to keep myself sane. Photography helped me do that. The community was just the evolution of the power I found through being creative and connected with how other people were feeling. 

The Eye Mama Project was a bit outside my comfort zone, but I felt a need to connect with and showcase other women. I had a moment of clarity where I saw a way in which I could help women like me and showcase something very beautiful and powerful. 

So I reached out to a few friends who were photographers and mothers and asked them “Does this sound good or does it sound crazy?” You know, to get the ‘mother gaze’ in the pandemic.

Usually during wars or even pandemic times, the story tends to be told by men. It’s always men going out to war. Of course, there are a few amazing photojournalists, like Lynsey Addario, for instance. But there's not many of them, although there's been a growing number in recent years which is amazing. Even so, they’re out at war rather than at home with their families looking inwardly. 

So that was what was interesting to me, because there were all these incredible photographers worldwide, who would usually be out on assignments, and they were now turning their lens inwards and looking at what they had at home in a new light. 

Image © Ansley West Rivers

On the practical side of things, how did you go about launching the Eye Mama Project? 

It was very organic. At first I thought I would run it for a month and see how it went. I put one picture on Instagram of my son getting a home haircut during lockdown. The image was actually featured in the book “Hold Still,” a project by the National Portrait Gallery. 

I called it ‘Eye Mama Project.’ I felt so strongly about the name because I felt it encompassed everything. It’s a collective. It’s not just my work; I’m curating this body of work that’s already out there. 

I also contacted Alessia Glaviano who is the head of PhotoVogue. I really admire her and the way she showcases underrepresented communities and is such a strong personality within the photographic community. She agreed to help with the editing down the line if I was doing a book.

Then I wrote to some friends who were mother photographers that I knew of, like Elinor Carucci, who is quite well known for mother photography anyway, and asked them if I could post their images under the Eye Mama Project hashtag and provide credit. 

I had to do a lot of active reaching out, because when you’re an Instagram account with ten followers, nobody is particularly interested in putting effort into it, because you’re not going to give them visibility. 

But, because we were all on lockdown it spread quite quickly. We’ve now got women from 35 to 40 countries and have more than 2k featured images, as well as around 24k submissions with the hashtag. We also had a few articles done with Creative Review and British Journal of Photography. Romper recently also did an article because of the war in Ukraine and the fact that we’re highlighting Russian and Ukrainian mums. 

I knew I had to see it through, because I respect this work and I want to give it visibility. I feel a great responsibility because I’m holding the work for these mothers. It’s the female point of view and we became very connected as a community. Women would write to me and I took it very personally and put a lot of hours in to make sure it kept a personal tone, although this is starting to get harder now that we’re getting bigger. 

Ironically, making a platform for motherhood and photography has taken me away from my own motherhood. Because when you invest in something that’s a startup, it takes time, and I’ve had to lock myself in toilets and ignore the kids sometimes, and say “I need this time in the studio.” 

Image © Megan Budge

How do you select the images you feature on the Eye Mama Project? 

I was trying to curate something that I’d never seen; like a poetic, melancholy, realistic take on motherhood. Throughout history there are some women who have done this, like Sally Mann and Elinor Carucci. But often motherhood is overlooked and underestimated. Mothers are often also in fight or flight mode, and don’t have time to document, or at least not in a poetic or serious way. 

I also wanted to be careful about making sure that we reach out with diversity and are being inclusive. It’s not so easy, because the world is not built that way. 

I wanted it to be a mix of well known and lesser known photographers. There’s no point in just highlighting the superstars. It’s much better and more interesting to look for women with amazing eyes, who might not have had much opportunity for reasons of childcare, lack of support and money, or bias in the industry. 

We want to keep the term mama wide open and inclusive. This includes women who have have lost a child, have gone through IVF, have adopted children, are step mums or have had an abortion. Of course, the curation is mine after that, and I do want to maintain a certain level. I look for a strong point of view, storytelling and a vision that I’ve not seen too much before. Not too pretty, not too sugar coated and very real. 

I think the key is that people who aren’t mothers can also relate to it. I’m not aiming for a platform that’s mothers for mothers. It’s also not necessarily pandemic related. It just so happens that it started in the pandemic when everyone was very introspective and had the opportunity to look closely at the details. For better or worse, there was a lot of very powerful work coming out during that time that felt more true to me. 

Wouldn’t it be amazing if we could look back in history and see the whole story told from the mother perspective and the female perspective? It’s just something that’s never been done before. 

Image © Viktoriia Dudar

Could you tell us a little about how the project has transitioned recently from being focused on the pandemic to focusing on mothers affected by the war in Ukraine? 

Well again, it’s very organic. I come from a political place, so I’ve always kind of distanced myself from politics. But suddenly you realise that being a mother is political. When you’re fighting for your child’s future, you’re going to care and you’re going to want to effect change. Whether it’s about war, climate change, the pandemic, or BLM and any of the other movements that are cropping up. 

What happened was that I started getting images from mothers in Ukraine and Russia. The UK just released everyone from wearing masks and we’re going back to normal, and yet nothing feels normal. Suddenly the news is all about Ukraine and a possible war in Europe. 

I felt this deep connection with the mother photographers. They were my tribe and we were telling stories through photography, and suddenly the stories were about escaping from war or being at home while there’s a war going on. Mothers were sharing photos with a lot of text about how they were feeling and it really touched me. 

Then Romper Magazine got in touch about the Ukraine situation, so I prepped the stories a bit with the mothers and let them know about it. We thought it was very important to give visibility to our humanity. Both in Russia and Ukraine. Often the mothers in Russia get a lot of slack, even if they don’t believe politically in what the government is doing. We wanted to try to connect Russian and Ukrainian mothers. There was a lot of anger on the Ukrainian side, because obviously it’s very hard to see the other side clearly and share love when people are dying. 

That’s a hard thing, and I’m now considering whether I should even mention countries or if it’s better to let the images do the talking. In some ways it doesn’t matter where your borders are or what your religion is. If you’re human and you’re a mum, then you likely don’t want war for your family and you don’t want other kids to be affected by it either. So that’s what we’re trying to promote with “Mothers for Peace.” 

I just think we can’t be indifferent anymore. We can’t afford to be uncaring or ignorant or neutral. Maybe it sounds naive, but it seems so idiotic to me to be killing each other when we’ve just survived a pandemic as a human race. The most idiotic thing we could do is enter a war and maybe even a world war. 

But, I also feel that we have a lot more power than we imagine. There’s a chain reaction in visibility. Even if you’re just a photographer, you do have power. Of course we can’t just stop the war today, and I’m not going to go take up arms in Ukraine but I can do this. 

Visuals and stories are powerful and people who make them are powerful people. It’s just a different kind of power. It’s not a weapons power or a money power. But it’s still a power. Especially in the age of social media, there is so much we can share. I want my kids to feel empowered and show them that they can tell their story. 

These stories resonate because they feel true and honest, and yet somehow poetic. I think as humans we’re very drawn to that. Once you reach out of your comfort zone and you’re working with people, you realise that we’re sold a narrative; a narrative of war, money and power. 

So in the same way, women can sell the narrative of care, empathy and connection, and eventually this could be the lead narrative. Not overnight, of course, but I want to believe that this is possible.

Is that the idea behind your catchphrase “Empathy is a superpower"?

Oftentimes, care and empathy are seen as a weakness. But why are these things viewed as a weakness? As mothers, we’re able to see other people and put ourselves in their skins. 

We’re more powerful than people who just shoot at each other or are violent. I think care is underrated, and that’s why women are often underrated. In leadership, women tend to be more on the side of care and sensitivity and attention to detail and empathy. 

Because it’s a man’s world in a way, we’re often overlooked or looked down upon. But I think that’s wrong. Especially if you look at the war happening right now; a lot of the things that are being done to help Ukraine are out of feeling connected and realising that we are all human. 

Image © Valeria Sigal

What are your plans for the Eye Mama Project going forward? 

Well, I think it’s changed over time. In some ways, I’d rather do an archive platform of motherhood online. Once I have that, we can draw on all of that to make a book and maybe an exhibition and possibly other things from there. 

Instagram can’t be a long term home, for various reasons and limitations. The Instagram algorithms are a little biassed and don’t work in promoting motherhood. The Eye Mama Project even got taken down at one point because of the censorship that Instagram has on breastfeeding and showing bodies. 

So while I’ve accumulated 10k women in support of the Eye Mama Project, it feels a bit precarious. Instagram is amazing at connecting communities, but not so great about dealing with issues like that. 

Also, for third world countries and countries in the Middle East, social media isn’t necessarily the same and you need to collect the images in a different way. The seed is there, but we haven’t got much from China or Africa yet, for reasons that are social as well as artistic. So I think there’s work to be done to get even further. 

But we’re talking to a big body now, who are considering supporting the project, and it feels like a good direction. It could be historically something really iconic. I’d like to feel like we helped give visibility to motherhood and to all these incredible mother photographers who aren’t always showcased. 

There are things we can do personally as well. For instance, one of the things I tend to do on Instagram is to follow around 90% women artists. I try to shift my focus and watch films that are directed by women. I fill my life with things that are female-led so I can immerse myself in that narrative and go deeper within that. 

For instance, there are so many things such as postnatal depression, anxiety and physical or mental things we go through as women. If they’re not talked about, it can feel very isolating. In this social media age, women are more connected but at the same time more isolated. 

It can happen also with women who are pre-motherhood or not wanting to be mothers. I totally respect and understand not wanting to have kids as an artist, because of the compromises it brings and the way that society doesn’t help you mix the two. So I’m all for that, and I think women should do whatever they want to do. But I think that more needs to be talked about and more needs to be shared, both photographically and storywise. 

Biography:

Karni Arieli is a BAFTA-nominated filmmaker and photographer as well as mother of two. Karni found photographing her children an empowering process to reflect and connect. She started Eye Mama project during the early days of the pandemic to document history through the emotional narratives of motherhood and share the "mama gaze."

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