Jackie Dives, Becoming Not a Mother

JTF (just the facts): Self-published in 2020 (here). Softcover (5.5×8.5 inches), 66 pages, with 41 color and black and white photographs. Design by Alicia Carvalho. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: A few years ago, Carmen Winant released her forceful photobook My Birth (reviewed here), exposing and normalizing childbirth, by focusing on the empowering and transformative experience that giving birth is for women. Elina Brotherus similarly shared her frustration and the intense emotional experience of her effort to overcome childlessness in her photobook Carpe Fucking Diem (reviewed here). Both subjects, childbirth and infertility, are still widely ignored. The Canadian photographer Jackie Dives has recently joined this broader conversation, by thoughtfully investigating the question “what follows the choice not to become a mother?” 

When Dives made the decision not to become a parent, something changed. She experienced feelings of unworthiness, deep loss, and even alienation. To confront her emotions, she turned to photography, documenting her everyday life and the emotional transformation she felt taking place inside her. Her series is published in a small intimate publication titled Becoming Not a Mother. Its title reflects the lack of language available to describe her situation, “When you decide not to become a mother there is no word for what you are becoming.” Using photography, notes, and fragments of her conversations with others, Dives shares the journey wrapped up in her decision not to have children. 

The book opens with the words “he doesn’t want me because I don’t want a baby” in typewriter font, reminding us that the decision to have or not have a family affects other people too. It is followed by a spread pairing two pictures of trees with roughly cut stumps where branches used to be, a symbolic reference to nature, wounds, and the severing nature of her choice. Another spread brings together a quote by the novelist Sheila Heti, “there is a bit of a let-down feeling when the great things that happen in the lives of others – you don’t actually want these things for yourself”, and a small black and white square photograph of a mother nursing her child, highlighting Dives’ feeling of being on the outside looking in. 

Dives then screenshots her conversations with a friend, where she shares that her decision not to have children makes her feel rather confused, and also makes her want to hurt herself. “I hate myself,” she writes. Dives’ diaristic snapshots document her life, and they are often spontaneous and raw, but always sincere and heartfelt. She offers us flowers shot through glass covered in droplets of water, a cat sleeping on a pillow, fir trees covered in snow, a flower covered by dappled shadows, and a close up rough lichen-encrusted tree bark, each a visual metaphor for how she is feeling.

Several small black and white portraits shot on film show women who play important roles in Davis’ life. Some of them are mothers, others are not, but all of them have supported the artist in her decision. Their portraits are paired with screenshots of conversations or other photographs. A photo of one of these women is paired with yellow sticky notes reading “trust your process”, “trust your vision”. Another duo shows a woman making a peace sign while a heart shaped pizza appears on the left, playfully reminding her of importance of self-love. 

A number of photographs capture moments of necessary self-care and healing rituals: crystal wands at the store, tarot cards spread on the table for a reading, a magic crystal ball, and a pedicure salon. One spread pairs a photo of a razor with a shot of the artist’s legs in the bathtub, one shaved, the other unshaved, revealing the symbolic process of before and after change. Documenting her emotions and vulnerability is also part of a healing process, as it is the beginning of the conversation about unconventional life choices. As a substantial number of people make the choice not to have children, it also reinforces that childbearing should be a choice for everyone.

Dives’ intimate series exposes her vulnerability and the intense swirl of emotions related to her decision. Becoming Not a Mother is a self-contained project that shares an emotional experience that is hardly ever discussed or documented. Dives’ autobiographical work brings up issues of womanhood and identity that will resonate with many women, and we can’t help but empathize with both her decision and her emotions.

Collector’s POV: Jackie Dives does not appear to have consistent gallery representation at this time. As a result, interested collectors should likely follow up with the artists directly via her website (linked in the sidebar).

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