Ancient Greek mythology has it that the Milky Way was formed when the divine hero Heracles was a baby. Legend goes that his father, Zeus, god of the sky, allowed him to breastfeed from his divine wife, Hera, while she slept. Heracles was not Hera’s son, but the son of a mere mortal named Alcmene, and so when Hera awoke she pushed the unknown child away from her, and the milk left streaming from her breast became the Milky Way.
Referencing this myth, French photographer Vincent Ferrane’s recent personal project, Milky Way deals with the colliding of inside and outside worlds as he and his wife navigate the first stretch of new parenthood and in particular, the ritual of breastfeeding. The intimate, immersive world inside their family home is juxtaposed with the surrounding landscapes, seen mostly from windows and forming a gentle backdrop to this phase in their life as a new family. Sleepy winter scenes give way to spring, and time quietly continues passing outside of their private bubble. “The whole series assumes this balance between everyday reality and poetic symbols and myths,” Ferrane says.
The images in Milky Way are spread over several months from the very first days of his child’s life. Aptly milky-hued, they follow a gentle, unwavering repetition of the act of breastfeeding – rhythmic and consistent throughout the project, Ferrane describes it as a “pulse that gradually takes its place among the other cycles of life” and time and again, mother and child are connected together. As the portrait wears on, we see Ferrane’s wife rehearsing positions and angles, limbs and skin slotting together almost like choreography.
“I tried to let the aesthetics follow the act of feeding, which imposes its geometry on bodies and the space they occupy. In other words, my partner and our baby had to learn from each other at the beginning. The way in which these two bodies approach one another is determined by food, and they express themselves only through gestures and postures. I tried to compose my images focusing on all these little adjustments: the way my wife was sitting, holding and giving her breast to the baby, or the way the baby grabbed the breast and seemed to fuse with his mother.”
Ferrane says that the project grew organically, as a visual diary. “I’m constantly taking pictures of my partner anyway, but when I started the breastfeeding pictures, it rapidly appeared that it could be a series living by itself. I did not want to do any sort of ‘report’ on breastfeeding but rather to focus on feelings and atmospheres. I think I was struck beyond words by the beauty of these moments.”
While there is a personal, poetic tenderness to the images, Ferrane is keen to point out that he did not want to romanticise them – there are moments of severe tiredness and signifiers of the harsh realities of being a new mother and the strain of that on the body and the mind. He said it was incredibly important for him to give an honest portrait of it, in all its complexity. “That’s why I also included still-life images of breastfeeding paraphernalia too – the breast pumps, the bathrooms and so on,” he says. “I wanted to take that classical idea of the ‘noble’ image of a breastfeeding mother and replace it with images of the everyday experience of it. As parents, you naturally and immediately incorporate these elements into your life and you find them beautiful, so I tried to do the same as a photographer, finding an aesthetic language that does not stop at what is normally considered ‘beautiful’ or worthy of interest.”
As a result, Ferrane hopes that people will get a moving, but not idealised, chronicle of these universal moments – an honest and tender portrayal of the prosaic reality of breastfeeding. The project includes stark images of nudity and lactating breasts that were agreed with his partner, and which make for powerful images. “Of course making this series doesn’t make me an expert in any way,” he says, when asked if he hopes the images will contribute in some small way towards normalising the image of breastfeeding more, “but for me it should undoubtedly be seen as an act of life and love that is not always an easy task. It deserves encouragement in all its dimensions – psychological, physical and social. In modern iconography, it‘s obvious to say that the female body is often eroticised. In this series, the idea is not so much to try to desexualise the body, but rather to render its function, and to show the beauty and poetry inherent in that.”
A mother and her child are physically connected through the act of breastfeeding. In some ways, Ferrane says, this project involved him as a part of the ritual too, as an active spectator. “The position you have, and the distance from which you take the picture is a fundamental aspect in photography. I started this candid series as a moved father – a father-photographer, you could say. During breastfeeding moments, as a father you are emotionally involved but already at a distance physically. Yes, Milky Way serially concentrated on breastfeeding moments, but there was ample space for me to express my role as a father, my love and my parenthood without trying to find a way to participate more or to interfere with those moments between mother and child. Taking the pictures was simply an act of love. Having a baby is a little revolution in parents’ lives and in the end those moments are rapidly passing. Taking photographs is a way to enjoy them for a little longer.”