"Growing up I used to read a lot of magazines and I didn’t really notice that sometimes there weren’t people that looked like me," explains Hackney-based photographer Krystal Neuvill. "I feel like that had an effect and I had a kind of warped perception. As you get older you sort of think Oh wow. It’s actually not okay. There are so many different types of women and human beings that seeing just one type of representation is not acceptable anymore."
With a passion for portraiture and a fascination with motherhood from an early age, the 23-year-old, who is of Jamaican and Grenadian descent, decided to make the very images she felt were lacking. "I wanted to explore the experience of what motherhood looks like through the eyes of black women," she says, telling me how she felt like a lot of imagery she came across focused predominantly on one demographic and an idealised notion of beauty. Not to mention the cheesy poses and stale design.
Her love of dance and background in styling is evident in the series of images she shares. The photographs have an elegance and strength to them, with the styling both captivating and drifting seamlessly into the background when faced with the arresting focus of her photographs: mother and baby.
It is this strength that 23-year-old Elizabeth, who’s been photographed with her 11-week-old daughter Mavia, loves and is most proud of. "I feel like I look so empowered," she says of the image where she’s breastfeeding her daughter and gazing directly down the lens. "I know some women are a bit ashamed of breastfeeding in the open, but I don’t see anything wrong with it and the picture just portrays that perfectly."
Elizabeth, a former Miss Caribbean UK winner, agrees that there is a lack of representation but also believes that generally, images of single mothers, shown in a positive light, exuding strength and authority, are largely absent. "You usually see just the mum and dad and if it’s [just] the mum, people think Ahh, where’s the dad? But with these pictures I think I just look so strong and it looks like we’ve got it handled. We don’t need a man, it’s just us two. I look like a strong mum and she looks like a happy baby."
"It’s important for mothers to see themselves in other women who look like them," says Magortu, 29, who alongside her 18-month-old daughter Ava also features in the photographs. "To be honest, I saw black pregnant women on the TV and in magazines but not always in the best light. Having a baby and being black shouldn't be looked down on or seen as negative."
She says that more recently Instagram has provided a useful platform for sharing advice and support: "You can see women who teach us how to look after our black daughters with 4c hair, or mothers that suffer from sickle cell, which is predominantly found in African and black people, who share their experiences and how they cope with having sickle and looking after their children."
At the age of six, Magortu moved from Sierra Leone to London due to the civil war. With a love of singing, dancing and acting, she bagged herself a place at the prestigious Italia Conti Academy of Theatre Arts and more recently she started a community called GIRLSOFLNDN. "I’ve done some pretty cool things but nothing comes close to Ava," she says.
For Magortu, the image of her confidently holding Ava and both of them looking directly at the camera, is among her favourite images that Krystal has created of the pair. "They’re beautiful and powerful, gentle and strong. I’m supporting Ava, a real imitation of life as we both currently know it to be... She is the beginning and the end, my everything. She doesn’t look like me but she is me in a little human."
Jessica, who approached Krystal after seeing her work on Instagram, is keen to raise awareness of multiracial families. Her 12-year-old son Fin is black Caribbean and white British, while her youngest son, 3-year-old Bodhi, is white British. She talks of the silent judgement she’s faced: "I’ve had a lot of, 'You have children. Two?' 'Another one?' 'Oh, the older one's yours?' 'Different dads then?' The list goes on."
Wanting to share her personal experience, Jessica penned a powerful essay. In it she writes: "Despite the age gap between my sons their love is so pure and real. They are brothers and they are thick as thieves. Although we all look different, you can tell we are related. They are often asked questions about their connection to each other and me; I wonder how they feel about strangers making assumptions about our relationships."
She hopes her sons will not have to face the same negativity: "As I know, and most people know, with genuine love in their hearts, it doesn’t matter the race, circumstance, religion, sex, parenting style. As long as your children are loved and you have their best interests at heart, you are doing better than you think."
Krystal’s images, infused with tenderness and love, are notable for the empowerment they exude. The simultaneous portrayal of her subjects as both powerful women and strong mothers is a refreshing anecdote to stereotypical and tired narratives. All three women in these images are keen not to be defined by the 'single mother' label. "I am a single woman and not a single mother. My daughter has a father and they adore each other," stresses Magortu.
Since sharing the photographs, Krystal has been overwhelmed ("in the most beautiful way") by the reaction she’s received and is contacted daily by women who are either pregnant or have children, interested in participating in her work. "I’m just really proud to create these moments," says Krystal. "They have these images for life."
The most challenging aspect of creating the photographs might not come as a surprise for anyone who’s spent even a few moments with babies and young children. "It’s a lot of hard work getting and keeping their attention," laughs Krystal. "You definitely have to catch them in the right mood otherwise it just goes out the window."
For Elizabeth, Magortu and Jessica, Krystal’s photographs have not only captured precious and intimate moments, they’ve also offered up a new, dynamic image of what it means to be a single woman and a mother. As Magortu sums it up: "These photos allow people to see mothers as queens, super women who sacrifice so much to make their children happy. It’s also important for people to see an example of mothers that look like them, representation and being able to relate to others is important. It makes you remember that you are not alone."