I am not a mother, nor do I want to be one
Mexican photographer Judith Romero reflects on her own decision not to become a mother in the project Sin hijxs: a work that sheds light on a little-discussed topic, putting in dialogue the experiences of the author and her photographic gaze, with the testimonies of 19 other women from different backgrounds.
By Alonso Almenara
Sin hijxs, the project Judith Romero started ten years ago, is a long conversation born from an urgency: to understand and show that it is still difficult to share the reasons that lead women to decide, freely, not to be mothers. “Why are these stories still not very public?” asks the Mexican photographer. “What is the relationship between the visibility of this choice and the demand for control over our bodies? What are the social and political implications of this fact?”.
A native of Oaxaca, Judith is also an editorial designer and coordinator of the Resplandor Gallery. Her work addresses contemporary and social issues with a gender perspective and explores aspects related to the body, identities, and the decisions women make in the face of social mandates.
Sin hijxs is one of her most introspective works, based on a personal reflection on her decision not to become a mother. With the collaboration of curator Rían Lozano, the project expanded and became the exhibition Sin hijxs. 20 respuestas, on display until last month at the Centro Nacional de las Artes in Mexico City.
This work combines photography with oral storytelling, including the words of 20 women from diverse social strata and ethnic backgrounds. Their testimonies reflect points of the encounter but also tell of life stories and very distant experiences regarding the enjoyment of sexuality, alternative family projects, sexual violence, abortion, gender discrimination, and the production of identities that escape the social mandate. The photographer closes this journey with her testimony: a point and a continuation of a conversation that she hopes will complete by the visitors’ experience.
“After you manage to understand what your true desire is and decide to say no to motherhood, you might think that now we are talking about it from a privileged point of view, but no, all the women I interviewed in a certain way faced adversity, doubts, fears, pressures,” says Judith. It is difficult to talk out loud about the fact that you have decided not to have children: it is looked down upon, suspected, judged, and stigmatized in different social strata. “It is time to think about new ways of living, to recognize other types of relationships and families that may be of the same gender, to become aware of the decision to be mothers or not.”
“Achieving the images involved many hours of conversations and several sessions, as the subject requires strong trust. The reflections that the interviewees were gradually unraveling were combined with images that I made in our meetings: some linked to their childhood, to significant moments, to objects connected to emotional instants, to places where they lived before emigrating.”
How was the Sin hijxs project born?
The passion for photography and its practice often leads you to imagine how it would be to face some issues visually. Seventeen years ago, I began to practice photography more constantly, learning in a self-taught way, as well as from workshops, conversations, exhibitions, teachings of master photographers, and the editorial-graphic design I have worked on for two decades. The experience of delving into some documentary photography projects has made me aware of its potential, as it can link you to other cultures, people, and ways of life, but also to a different knowledge about visual culture, unthinkable before investigating from the camera.
Therefore, when I reflected on such a significant experience for me, as was the decision not to have children, the concern arose to use photography as a social, political, and creative means to approach different women’s stories. At that moment, I understood I had no family or people close to me, and much less visual about not having children.
Gisela. Photo: Judith Romero
Although the idea of this series was born as an intimate and personal reflection, I thought of taking it to a shared review with other women, articulated the power of deciding about our own body and, in this case, choosing not to be a mother. I realized that the strength (conceptual, experiential, and artistic) was in the decision. Faced with the constant dilemma that women face, it would be easier to make a decision -without fear or prejudice- if it is made visible that there are multiple ways of life and diverse referents, including non-mothers.
Under this notion, I wanted to initiate and then expand this project with women of different nationalities, social strata, and cultures to enrich the visions of a global topic. However, it contains singularities according to each context. There are similarities in confronting adversities, but there are also differences concerning the territory and the family from which one comes, the legal aspects (such as the decriminalization of abortion or legal interruption of pregnancy), and the feminist and social struggles of each place. In other words, it is only a personal issue, but it is linked to the rights won in each country or region’s social, political, and cultural spheres.
Photo: Judith Romero
The issue of motherhood – of the prejudices and mandates surrounding it – has a long history in feminist thought. Where is the discussion today, and what are the aspects of this discussion most challenge you?
The critical thing about Sin hijxs is its feminist political implications since women decide about their bodies. It is not only important to say: “my body is mine,” we also want to make it known that there is a decision, that we can exercise the right and enjoyment of being visible, and that there are other references of life alternatives. For me, it has been fundamental to bring the representation of women to the image. And maternity in the arts has been more recurrent throughout time (in the whole world). It has been represented in childbirth or when the presence of the creatures next to the woman is evoked. In the arts, non-motherhood has been represented much less or has not been done in a deliberate way, and as the feminist philosopher Eli Bartra said in a talk with us: “the absence of motherhood is the great absent within the arts.” So we can ask ourselves: how to represent non-motherhood in the visual arts or photography?
The absence of motherhood may give rise to the presence (of other experiences, of cultivating different trades or projects). For some, this absence derives in representing an emptiness from loneliness. But images are polysemic. They can have different interpretations -and you can put in the picture of a woman alone even if she has had children- so a context is required to understand them. That is why the testimony of their ways and life choices is vital to me. In the images I propose in “Sin hijxs“, there is instead an absence that evokes freedom, women in active solitude, free, autonomous, emancipated, integrated into work and daily life, but also by “signs” of their life in non-motherhood, such as personal objects and family photos, artistic pieces, kitchens, bedrooms, trips and emotional landscapes, altars meticulously shaped, their connection with the earth and plants, etc.
Fabiana. Photo: Judith Romero
In these images, the woman “appears” as the central protagonist, the person-woman emerges that institutions, religions, and the most conservative society do not want to see, making them invisible and stereotyping them. Not to be a mother is not to refuse a typical project. It is also to question the ways of being represented. It is to ask the system that we reproduce today -with its reproductive inertia or under a social mandate-often automatically and without stopping to think about the different processes involved in this reproduction. That is why it is also necessary to question the stereotype of the romanticization of motherhood – as is being done by various contemporary projects – and, above all, to include the possibility of not being mothers in any debate.
And here I return to Adrienne Rich, who put the issue on the table about motherhood as an experience and institution in the seventies: “We know much more about the air we breathe or the seas we cross than about the nature and meaning of motherhood.” And that we may well paraphrase it and say the same “…of the meaning of non-motherhood.”
Guadalupe. Photo: Judith Romero
Although you started the project as an intimate and personal reflection, you later decided to include testimonies of other women. What did you discover in that exchange?
It has been a long journey -a decade- that I didn’t even imagine at the beginning where it would lead me, how long it would take me. Little by little, the project demanded more time and travel, and its development was prolonged; in addition, having to cover travel and production with my resources, I had to do it intermittently when my work allowed me to do so. It turned out to be deeper and more revealing than I had initially imagined, thanks to the exchange and dialogue generated with them. The intention has been to make visible the complex reality assumed by women who have decided not to become mothers, showing the cultural, social, and sexual diversity that is implied in the multiple stories and visual narratives arising from their own lives and contexts. Each one reveals, from their images and testimonies, essential aspects of understanding their forms of sociality and community and constructing their decision in environments as diverse as megalopolises, medium-sized cities, or indigenous communities.
I started first in Oaxaca, with close friends. I had the opportunity to live for a few months in Argentina, which allowed me to interview some women from South America. This led to other routes, questions, and reflections from women in Mexico, as well as from different parts of Latin America, mainly (I was able to interview women from Mexico, Argentina, Chile, Brazil, Spain, the United States, France, and Poland). But I have also sought this geographical and cultural diversity in terms of socioeconomic level and the sexualities assumed by the interviewees, including women from different social strata and lesbian women.
Photo: Judith Romero
It has been a delicate, intimate, controversial and arduous issue to carry out. It is difficult to know “at a glance” which women have made this decision. One difficulty has been to find them, then to gain their trust and collaboration, since intimate, private or often secret aspects are explored. Another difficulty was how to visualize them, since it has been more common to represent the different processes of motherhood. All this led me to understand that the decision does not happen at a certain moment, there is no “decisive moment”, because the decision is built in several stages.
Therefore, I made a series of images linked to their experiences, scenarios and significant moments around this decision that crosses their (our) existence: childhood memories and places, work spaces and elements, emotional landscapes, everyday or intimate atmospheres such as bedrooms, kitchens, as well as the meticulous collection of objects and decorative elements. These visuals show a diversity that is affirmed in the bodies, the postures, the stories of different women who, by deciding not to have children, have confronted stereotypes and the dominant vision of how a woman should be.
Were there testimonies that surprised you or forced you to adopt a new perspective on the subject?
Of course, there is a great diversity of ways of life, of sexualities, of how to exercise this decision; the project itself gave me the guidelines to develop it, so it was essential to be open to dialogue, which feeds back into every route traced, enriches it, orients it on unexpected scenarios. The thinking of those who decide not to have children is not homogeneous, there are different ways of life with all their problems, recollections, subjectivities, contradictions of modern life.
One of the surprises was to learn about the history of Guadalupe. It was after the first exhibition at the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Oaxaca (MACO) -four years after the project began- that she learned about and identified with the subject. She was encouraged to look for me in Oaxaca and when she visited me, she asked me: Have you considered a blind woman in your project? I was astonished, but I immediately answered: Well, introduce her to me. And she said to me: Well, here I am, I also decided not to have children. At the first opportunity I had, I went to Puebla to see her and live with her. I learned a lot from her strength and autonomy.
Rufina. Photo: Judith Romero
What was it that interested you to capture in the series of photographs included in the project?
We can hardly know “at a glance” which women have made this decision, so there were always constant questions: How to portray or make a decision visible? How to bring to the image an absence or a decision of something that does not have a visible presence (as it is possible to do in the different stages of motherhood)? How to document the stories and the overcoming of the adversities that the decision implies? How to represent ourselves in visuals in the face of the wealth of dominant expressions that show motherhood? How can we break down the stereotypes by which women without children are stigmatized?
From then on, I knew that I would spend a lot of time because you don’t arrive and take a portrait right away; no, it takes several hours of conversation, of getting to know each other, of achieving a certain confidence to be able to take out the camera, to start taking pictures without being invasive, to gradually unravel the life stories, so the project required a deeper and more direct relationship. Engaging in dialogue and several conversations were necessary to get to the bottom of personal issues that had not been reflected upon or that we had not yet named. Some even told me that the talks were like doing psychoanalysis, referring to how this decision is connected to profound experiences that the discussions made emerge, giving them a different meaning.
Rufina. Photo: Judith Romero
How was the process of interviewing and listening to the stories of these women?
Getting the images involved many hours of conversations and several sessions, as the topic requires strong trust. The reflections that the interviewees were gradually unraveling from our talks were combined with images that I made in our meetings. Many of the photographs were derived from the testimonies and the dialogue: some were linked to their childhood, to significant moments, to objects connected to emotional or family moments, to places where they lived before emigrating, and so on. But there were also sessions where I only talked extensively with the interviewees, without being able to take a single photograph, so as not to break with the stories.
For example, the portrait of Deyanira on the beach of her childhood came up because she was constantly mentioned in her talk, so we undertook the trip to her Zapotec community of Ixhuatán (in the Isthmus region), with which she maintains a link. That beach was significant for her before she emigrated at 14 to work in Juchitán. It is there where she connects with her past-present evoking memories of her mother, her father, and her family dedicated to fishing. We made a meaningful photo session for her memory and her life story.
I think it was necessary to work the images in color and use the light that each one used in their spaces so that I could capture the atmosphere in which they lived. I didn’t have a big production, so I made the audiovisuals myself, which involved a lot of work and, in some cases, the dilemma of recording, photographing, or listening to them. Sometimes I chose to record directly and not with a tripod. Since recording more naturally and immediately was possible but carried away by the moment’s emotion, I achieved valuable testimonies.
Deyanira. Photo: Judith Romero
Do you consider that the project has reached its final form, or is it ongoing?
It is part of a life project, and there are still other phases to be tackled along the way. It was recently exhibited in the Centro Nacional de las Artes (CENART) central gallery in Mexico City. And to date, it has been presented in some museums and photographic spaces in Chile, Poland, Slovenia, and Mexico. This is the first time that the 19 women I interviewed, plus my position, testimony, and self-portrait, are exhibited in their entirety, which is why the exhibition became Sin hijxs. 20 respuestas.
At the same time, in collaboration with the curator of the exhibition, Rían Lozano, PhD in Art History, we organized three tables of analysis on the subject that were very necessary and complementary to dialogue about the exhibition: “Sin hijxs. Respuestas desde los feminismos“, at the Center for Research and Gender Studies (CIEG-UNAM); “Sin hijxs. Respuestas desde las prácticas artísticas“, at the Instituto de Investigaciones Estéticas (IIE-UNAM); and “La decisión de no tener hijxs. Perspectivas desde el arte y la escritura“, at CENART. We invited feminists, researchers, art historians, philosophers, writers, editors, and artists to these talks, to whom I am very grateful for their reflections and new questions about this global issue that summoned us all.
We hope that in the coming months, the dissemination and circulation of this exhibition in cities around the country will be completed. After several years of work, achieving this exhibition at CENART was a distinction that gave it great diffusion and resonance. Taking it to this exhibition phase provoked a dialogue, mainly with young women, who expressed that they have identified with the theme or been moved by the stories and images that question their experience.