"What's been most surprising to me is how heteronormative my lifestyle has become," says photographer Emli Bendixen as she reflects on her journey of leaving London, buying a home and having kids. "I never thought this would or could happen for me, primarily because I always had this perception of myself as being unable to live this kind of life. A very real feeling of being different had been simmering inside of me for so long." As a queer woman of colour, she talks warmly and openly about how parenthood has helped her completely redefine what a family is and can be.
These days, Bendixen lives in Bristol with her girlfriend and their two children: one a toddler, the other still a baby. Life is busy and full and beautiful as she balances the all-consuming early years of motherhood with being a working photographer. At home, she’s been making images of her little family and their day-to-day lives since the very beginning, collecting them together in a series called Forgetful Mothers.
Born in South Korea, Bendixen was adopted to Denmark when she was just three months old. "Growing up in the Danish countryside was idyllic in many ways but adoption starts you off on the back foot, slightly off kilter, I guess," she says thoughtfully. "I was always aware not only of my physical otherness to my white friends but also of the fact that unlike them, I didn't – and still don’t – know my biological parents or anything about them." As a result, she says, she felt different from very early on and her childhood was tumultuous and complicated. "That's where my interest in other people's families came from," she adds, "trying to understand what others had that I didn’t." Discovering her queerness at age 23 was another stage in learning what set her apart.
I never thought this would or could happen for me, primarily because I always had this perception of myself as being unable to live this kind of life. A very real feeling of being different had been simmering inside of me for so long.
Before starting a family herself, Bendixen began feeling around the edges of queer parenthood with a project called Modern Families, in which she photographed all types of family set-ups across the UK. "When I started that series, it was with an outsider's eye," she says. "I didn't have a classic family structure and never understood what people talked to their parents about, or the bonds that they shared. It just felt incredibly alien and overwhelming to me that people would put so much faith in others just because they grew up under the same roof or were connected by bloodline." Thus, Modern Families became a sort of aspirational endeavour – the concept was foreign but she still wanted the intimacies of a family unit some day. Just like that first project, Forgetful Mothers explores the perception of family, confronting and resolving questions like 'What do they think of us?' – but this time by turning the lens inwards.
Forgetful Mothers is what Bendixen playfully calls "the grown-up version" of her previous series Forgetful Girls, a collection of homemade mini zines she put together each year for her girlfriend’s birthday. "We are both exceptionally forgetful people – that’s where the title came from originally, an ongoing joke between us! We used to go away a lot and would struggle to remember the details of what happened and where," she laughs. "Forgetful Mothers came about when our first child was born so it's basically a little annual just for us, a reminder of the year past, in pictures."
The images that make up the Forgetful Mothers series are gorgeous – a radiant constellation of tonal and tender domestic scenes bathed in the glow of afternoon light. We see Bendixen’s partner in bed and laughing on the phone; her baby being breastfed; a flurry of little moments of the family eating or playing together.
There’s a rare self-portrait of Bendixen, too. It’s night-time and she’s sitting at the foot of the stairs, her head resting sleepily against the wall. "I photograph the things I want to see, and the things I want to remember," she explains, "everyday small scenes and incidentals that I can't help but inject extra beauty into." She’s particularly drawn to the little oddities and imperfections of normality, which she attributes to her personal history. "It’s a pretty diverse background, which I think is why I thrive when things are a bit off. That’s all I know." She adds that photography has always been "a form of exploratory escapism" for her. That’s interesting because while these pictures mean escapism for her, for those of us looking in from the outside, they are doing the important work of normalising the experience of this young family.
Photographing the ones we love is almost always an emotional experience. Bendixen calls it "incongruous" and says she is still working out how much of her family’s bubble she wants to put out in the world. "The most intimate moments, that I understand to be some of the strongest images, are generally offline. I have a lot of concerns about the consent of my children and what might happen to photography ownership in the future – especially online – so I try to edit my own pictures in a way that shows the emotional experience without giving away too much of the physical one." The irony, she says, is that she has spent years trying to find out what family is and now that she has it, and understands it, she hesitates to share her findings. That’s parenthood at its most instinctual – an overwhelming desire to protect and preserve the privacy of our own.
Since becoming a mother, the way Bendixen sees her partner has expanded, encompassing all new levels of admiration and love, as the mother of her children. She says she’s experienced a renewed intensity of feeling and affinity towards other parents too – regardless of personal history or identity. Above all, her photographs show us what it means to proudly occupy a space of modern queerness while enjoying the fullness of family life not always afforded to her community. The definition of family is constantly shifting and changing but as long as the fundamental structure of a parent who loves their child unconditionally is there, nothing else should matter. The rest is just the beautiful spectrum of human nature.