Last year, the parenting products company Frida released its first TV commercial during the Golden Globes. Featuring moms in real life, the ad highlighted the moments we rarely see in commercial media: the clogged ducts, the cabbage compresses, and other lactation hurdles. Within a few days, the original version of the ad had racked up over 1.4 million views on YouTube.
The last couple of years have brought with them a slow but steady transformation in the way brands talk to and about mothers. You might remember another Frida ad from 2020 that went viral after it was rejected by the Oscars for a depiction of the postpartum recovery process. For many viewers, the Golden Globes spot a year later signified a departure from the unattainable, sugarcoated depictions of motherhood we normally associate with advertising.
With it came a new era, defined by a more authentic look at the joys and challenges faced by many new moms. As we head into Mother’s Day 2022, we wanted to take a look at some of the defining movements shaping visual culture today. Read on for our best ideas for illustrating motherhood in your commercial photography portfolio.
Spotlight on: Inclusive motherhood
For too long, commercial visuals have focused on a narrowly defined view of motherhood, failing to represent the diversity of lived experience. For that reason, it’s essential to champion all mothers, including those with a range of identities, genders, sexual orientations, abilities, and experiences. “Remember first-time moms, single moms, LGBTQ+ moms, moms with large families, moms with grown children and grandchildren, adoptive moms, foster moms, surrogate moms, stepmoms, fur moms, all moms,” the 500px team urges.
For inspiration, consider checking out Dove’s #RealMoms campaign, which shined the spotlight on the experiences of millennial moms, one of whom happened to be transgender. Or revisit Nike’s 2021 video The Toughest Athletes, featuring more than twenty pregnant women and new moms, including Serena Williams, Alex Morgan, Perri Edwards, Bianca Williams, Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, Nia Ali, and everyday athletes. The moms featured spanned continents, hailing from the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Singapore, Australia, Jamaica, and beyond.
Spotlight on: Everyday moments
In 2018, an advertisement for Gap sleepwear, featuring a mother breastfeeding her child, went viral on social media, racking up far more “Likes” and comments than a typical Instagram post and inspiring people through the normalization of breastfeeding. The mom, the Nigerian-American model Adaora Akubilo, later explained that the moment was unscripted: they were on a shoot, and her son, Arinze, needed to nurse. The photographer asked permission to document the scene, and it became the foundation of the campaign.
The most powerful photographs often arise organically, so feel free to take a documentary-style approach to telling a mother’s unique story. Ask her about the most important things she does with her child and throughout the day, and ask if you can capture some of them. Tailor the session to your models, their connection, and their everyday routines.
“Consider all the steps and processes of motherhood, from parents nesting, decorating the nursery, and taking prenatal meds to first baths, meal preps, and walks to school,” the 500px team suggests. “Remember moments of teaching and learning too, documenting moms and kids doing homework, working in the garden or kitchen, coaching and playing sports, exercising outdoors, playing video games, getting messy with crafts or DIY projects, and so on.”
Spotlight on: Body diversity
Last year, the razor brand Billie asked the photographer Camila Falquez to help them celebrate postpartum bodies in a series of stunning portraits. Mothers face impossible expectations and standards of beauty, but advertisers—and photographers—can push back through images that capture the real-life diversity, natural beauty, and natural aging of mothers’ bodies.
Spotlight on: Breaking stereotypes
A few years ago, researchers from the University of Sydney, Lancaster University, the University of Edinburgh, Monash University, and St Gallen University examined the evolution of representation for mothers in advertising from 1950 to 2010. Their study found that while ads in the 1950s showed mothers mostly listening to male experts for advice on caring for their children, later ads positioned the mothers themselves as the experts on caring for their children.
Interestingly, however, advertisements throughout the decades continued to illustrate women’s knowledge primarily in the context of domestic responsibilities such as cleaning, cooking, and caring for children. Ideas relating to femininity and female identity revolved around being the perfect mother, using their knowledge selflessly and not for their own gain. Very few men, on the other hand, were shown as fathers.
When documenting motherhood, celebrate the real lives of your models, inside and also outside of the home. Inquire about the facets of her identity that are most meaningful to her, from the activities she does with her kids to her own hobbies, passions, and career. Think beyond the cliches and stereotypes rooted in gender bias. Communicating openly with your models and learning about their interests will result in authentic sessions that resonate.
Spotlight on: Self-care
Last year, Maltesers released two commercials highlighting the importance of talking about maternal mental health. Elsewhere, for Mother’s Day, the footwear brand Saucony released a film for moms, titled The Marathon That Never Ends, that addressed the realities of burnout in the pandemic era. The video featured real moms in their real, everyday lives.
Maternal mental health can be illustrated through photographs in many ways, but one approach would be to document how moms support themselves and each other. “We rarely see moms taking time for themselves and showing themselves self-love and self-care,” the 500px team explains. “Consider capturing content that focuses on moms making time and space for themselves, whether it’s through a meditation practice, therapy, health and wellness routines, or something else.
“It could be as simple as showing moments of quiet in personal spaces like bathrooms and bedrooms or championing self-love through skincare, style, fashion, or activities and interests that are specific to her. Finally, consider showing groups of moms connecting with each other, and highlight the support systems and friendships that moms build for themselves.”
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