Published on January 10th, 2018 | by Laura Larson1
HIDDEN MOTHER: An Excerpt
In 19th century portrait studios, photographers employed a number of different strategies to stabilize the body during the long exposures of the camera. Sitters leaned on pedestals to steady themselves; necks were held in a pincer-like brace. A pair or a group might ballast one other—leaning together, an arm thrown over a shoulder—as if being photographed was like taking a boat ride on choppy water. To sit for a portrait was to submit to physical discomfort. The photographer too must tense and harness their body to execute the tasks of production. Head cloaked with black fabric to block the light, he—it is almost always a he—leans over the bulky view camera and squints, pressing his eye to the loupe, and the loupe to the glass to focus the image. Muscles strain and ache, as if in empathy with the subject. To make a photograph is to see with the whole body.
Photographing children presented the operator with a specific set of challenges. Pedestals and braces can’t be used on the small, unruly bodies of infants. The photographer enlists the mother to play an instrumental role. Her body props the infant, steadying and comforting while the film is exposed. Hold still.
The hidden mother appears in many forms, playing a structural but visually peripheral role in these portraits. Often, she is swathed in fabric, her concealed lap acting as a pedestal for her infant. Her form becomes indistinguishable from the appointment of the scene. She is armature, background. These images remind me of dressing up as a ghost when I was a kid, throwing a sheet over my head and running around, arms outstretched, moaning. Sometimes, the mother inhabits the margins of the frame, the fact of her body several feet away providing enough reassurance to allow the child to sit quietly. Her arm reaches into the frame, or her body can be seen crouching behind a chair or pram. She whispers to her child, Mama’s here.
When the portrait’s staging is insufficient to the task, the photographer turns to other techniques to isolate the child on the finished plate. A mat placed over the plate vignettes the image, centering the baby and occluding the mother. Sometimes the measures are more drastic: if she can’t be concealed, her face is scratched away, revealing the black enameled surface of the tintype. Alternatively, a thin layer of black paint is used to mask her presence. The implicit violence of these practical strategies raises the question: why not photograph mother and child together?
My daughter Gadisse was brought to Layla House, a transition house for orphans, in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, on May 23, 2009. The doctor estimated her age at eight months, making her provisional birthday September 23, 2008.
The adoption agency called on June 15, 2009, the first day of my summer break. “We have a referral to offer you.” These are the words I repeat to my friends. An opaque beginning to this story. The housemothers at the orphanage named her Gadisse, which means shelter in the Oromo language. She was found in Shashemene by a “gentle man” who took her to the police station. This is what her report says. I know she is being fed, her diaper changed; she’s crawling, growing, playing.
And here the essential question first appeared: did I recognize her?
I would wait seven months before bringing Gadisse home, and this time would be measured in photographs, a stream of them that formed a virtual umbilical cord between us. They instructed me—she is growing, she is healthy—but my desire animated them, seizing and elaborating upon the details of her. They reassured me of her presence in the world and reminded me of our separation. Like a hidden mother, I was bound to and separated from my daughter.
I try writing to her—a short note every few days—to bring her closer. I write that I love her and I can hardly wait to bring her home. After several notes, my disposition toward her becomes confused. I address her as the child I will bring home, then as an adult, a young woman I’ve raised. She keeps appearing to me as a teenager. In this rehearsal of attachment, I’m already anticipating other, future stages of separation.
A sort of umbilical cord links the body of the photographed thing to my gaze; light, though impalpable, is here a carnal medium, a skin I share with anyone who has been photographed.
Dismantle birth and make something new. In its beginnings, love is an act of invention, a leap bridging the distance between two people. Adoption reinscribes the notion of kin because it takes that distance as a given, a space filled with potential because it has been traversed. Every mother meets her child for the first time. We will see and hold one another and part and stare. Our differences aren’t a fault line but a seam slowly stitched together. My impulse to intellectualize, to distance, skirts the heat of my longing. If I claim ours as a story of invention, I cast Gadisse as Athena, emerging fully rendered from my head, a triumph of mind over body. Who am I kidding here? I fantasize her body in my arms and feel her frame press into me. I can’t breathe: racking sobs, mucus caught in my throat. No blood, no viscera. My body cleaved all the same. It took an axe to free Athena from Zeus’ skull, her birth rendered an act of violent creation. But it was her hidden mother Metis who forged her helmet and shield.
At Dulles, I walk through a stretch of abandoned American Airline terminals to get to the Ethiopian Air gate. My flight is filled with children. I am travelling alone and am keenly aware of it. I barely sleep for the 16 hour flight, arriving in Addis Ababa at 7 in the morning, exhausted and disoriented. The driver brings me to the Ritmo Guest House where many families stay during this last stage of the adoption process. I collapse in my tiny room, which accommodates a bed and a crib within arm’s reach, and I sleep until afternoon. When I wake, I walk to Layla House, ten minutes away, with another parent.
We arrive while the infants and toddlers are having their naps. I ask to see Gadisse, and I’m brought to her crib. She’s lying on her stomach, her face partially obscured. I’ve seen this picture before. In spite of my protests, the orphanage’s director decides to wake her. I have handed my camera to the woman from Ritmo so that she can photograph our first meeting. Gadisse’s handed to me, I take her in my arms, and she screams in protest, reaching for the house mother. Click, click, click. “This is a good sign! It means she’s attached to her nanny! She will attach to you too!” I try giving her a bottle and she flails, fighting me. She will not stop until she is returned to the house mother, who effortlessly eases the bottle into her mouth. I photograph her, and her wary gaze locks on mine. This thought crosses my mind: maybe she would be happier here.
I try again, picking her up, and head out to the grounds for a walk. She continues to cry, but I distract her by singing and knocking on different objects and surfaces: cement, metal, stone, glass. An attempt to create a rhythm. We walk for an hour. We stop to talk with some older children. I give them my camera, and they start snapping. I’m trying to stretch this time, to make it last as long as possible. We return just as dinner’s being served to the toddlers: chicken noodle soup. There’s a long line of high chairs against the royal blue wall of the dining area and a low table in front of these chairs for the older, more mobile toddlers. She is transformed once I put her in her high chair and now happily interacts with me. She gobbles her soup and bangs the spoon on the tray. Now I recognize her from the photos: her animation and sense of humor. I photograph her and the other children. Some reach out and call me Mama.
I return the next day to bring Gadisse back to the guest house. I’ve volunteered to photograph children for waiting families. I have a list of names but when faced with the numbers, I become too overwhelmed to seek out the children who belong to the names. I had photographed the toddlers the evening before at dinner, so I focus on the infants. I only make it through three nurseries, photographing about twelve babies. They are so beautiful and solemn that it makes it hard to proceed with my task quickly. I want to see as carefully as I can. While I’m in the third nursery, a nanny enters carrying Gadisse.
Her hair has been gathered into puffs and she’s nibbling on a teething biscuit. I photograph her with the nanny. I want to document this woman, one of many, who have also loved her. The camera makes her shy and she cuddles into her nanny’s arms. Then, I take her into my arms and awkwardly struggle to get her into the baby carrier. We walk from the room, through the courtyard, and out the door into the street. I’m nervous. I’ve been briefed that Ethiopians are sensitive on the subject of Western adoption and the agency advises families to not appear in public with their children. I’ve been assured that the short walk back to Ritmo is safe. Her crying stops the moment we leave the compound. She looks at everything. The details swell and rush. A woman selling potatoes, piled in a mound on a blanket spread on the dirt road. Schoolchildren in their rumpled uniforms, orbiting and brushing by, pretending not to look. A man begging; he draws close, letting his hand hover inches above her head, nodding, conferring a blessing. More children, their aggression unfiltered, asking for candy and money. We arrive at the gates of Ritmo and greet the security guard, salaam, a passage completed. I take her into my room to change her clothes, as if dressing her in the clothes I’ve bought will ease the transition. I discover the beauty mark on her chest.
The first night, she wakes at 3:00 and I take her out of her crib. She climbs onto the top of my body and falls back asleep. I’m astonished by the blind force of her need. I can’t move her without her sobbing. Her fingers reach for me. They have a life of their own and there’s no gentleness in her touches. She twists the skin on my neck and kneads my breasts. Fleshy. Her fingers claw at my lips and reach into my mouth, scraping my palette. I keep waking, panicked, convinced that I’m suffocating. Skin to skin. Call me Mama.
Over a year later, Gadisse spies the photographs of our first meeting at Layla House on my computer and asks to see them. Murky and unfocused, the low light distorts our forms. She’s handed to me and her face is contorted from crying. As I scroll through the images, my words come slowly: You didn’t know me yet and you were afraid. The housemothers took care of you until I could come to bring you home. They loved you very much, and you loved them. It’s sad to say goodbye. She listens to my account with equanimity and repeats it back to me.
Gadisse is not shy in front of the camera anymore, but its slow shutter can’t keep up with her velocity. I struggle to reconcile the demands of mothering her with my impulse to document. I stand apart, considering the light, sweet talking my subject, and framing the scene. The distance between us shrinks and swells. I have very few pictures of us together except for the portraits we make with my laptop. In her early days home, this was the only way I could photograph her, us—with the screen acting as a mirror. Sitting in my lap, she would stare in wonder at our faces, then turn toward me. My arms around her, the moment of perfect quietness.