When we discuss the topic of new parenthood, we often consider it through the experience of new mothers first and foremost. We have a level of structural support in place for women during pregnancy and postpartum, peer networks are available and there’s a natural, cultural acceptance that the mother and baby bond is at the heart of the journey. All of this is crucial, of course, but since so much of the conversation around parenthood is focused on mothers, the emotional and psychological needs of fathers are often sidelined.
In London-based photographer Sophie Harris-Taylor’s latest series, Present Fathers, the experience of new dads takes centre stage. Inspired by watching her own partner adapt to becoming a dad, Harris-Taylor started the series to spark a dialogue around the absence of support or visibility for first-time fathers. "My partner was pretty lucky to have several months of paternity leave so we were very much both involved from day one," she explains, "but some time after the birth of our son, I realised he didn’t really know where to turn for support or where to explore and express this new role he’d found himself in." This made her wonder about the experiences of all the other new fathers out there. Where were they? Did they feel the same way? "We just don’t really hear from or see new fathers, at least not in comparison to new mothers," she continues. This curiosity became the catalyst for the project.
Armed with her camera and an innate sensitivity, Harris-Taylor travelled back and forth across southeast London, taking beautiful, naturally lit portraits of dads and their young kids. Some of them were friends and people she knew already; others were strangers she found by word of mouth and reaching out on Instagram. In the resulting pictures, children tumble through the frames in a blur of arms and legs, climbing over their dads with tenderness and affection. They’re joyful images and refreshingly sincere, giving equal space to moments of uncertainty and exhaustion alongside scenes of families laughing or playing. "I think we’re so used to seeing motherhood in this way, and images of mothers and babies seem to hold so much value," says the photographer. "The love and bond fathers can have with their babies and children is no different yet we rarely see this kind of intimacy, which then perhaps makes it seem more remarkable than it should."
Alongside the images, Harris-Taylor gathered quotes and thoughts from interviews with each dad, and their words reveal a constellation of unspoken anxieties. "Each father shared their own unique story with me and I learned so much about their understanding of their roles individually," Harris-Taylor says. "Many of them seemed wary of being perceived to complain and were keen to always put the emphasis back onto the achievements of the mother. Of course she is important too, but it felt a shame that some felt even when directly given the opportunity, society might not allow them to show vulnerability. A lot of the conversations were really just affirming why I wanted to make the work: the lack of support fathers get, the isolation that comes from becoming a parent and even being able to express the love they have for their children."
Present Fathers isn’t the photographer's first project to explore an aspect of parenthood. In another of her series, Milk, she photographed new mothers, unfolding the highs and lows of the act of breastfeeding. These are themes she doesn’t think she would have explored if she wasn’t a mum herself. "My personal work tends to come from my own experiences, preoccupations and vulnerability," she says. "I guess often I want to find out more – to find out if others are going through what I am and, in some ways, validate my own experiences while also learning from others."
From the time she’s spent meeting the dads she photographed, and from her own experience watching her partner become a father, Harris-Taylor has become much more attuned to understanding what needs to change in the ways our societies represent and talk about fatherhood. "I think a bit more openness is needed, in general," she says. "It’s all the little things that add up, there seems to be so much for mums out there – groups and forums online, activities advertised solely for mum and baby – not taking into account that postnatal depression can exist within fathers too. Even just simply asking fathers how they are doing and coping can go a long way. In a time when gender roles are converging and parenting is hopefully becoming more equal, it seems only right to put those supports in place. Especially now we’re realising just how many men are suffering, untreated, with their mental health."
Bola, one of the men Harris-Taylor photographed for the project, echoes this sentiment. "The support was [and] is generally absent," he says. "All you get is a one-off two-week paternity leave and that is it. There is not enough time to bond with your child and support the mother at that critical and important moment. There are barely even any organisations that I’m aware of that support fathers. Every support though is there for the mother."
Harris-Taylor’s favourite image from the series is of a man called Nathaniel and his son, shot against a midnight blue background. It’s an impactful portrait in which he holds his fidgeting son in his arms and gazes directly into the lens. "I find this image powerful because it seems to somehow combine protectiveness with vulnerability," she explains. "Most of the shots in the series show a bit more of the home environment but this one has a kind of simplicity and directness, I think. I found Nathaniel’s expression, alongside his beautifully written words, quite poignant."
Nathaniel speaks openly and honestly about his journey into fatherhood, and his words resonate far beyond his own experience. "I encourage all fathers, and particularly young or new fathers, to be more open and communicate about how they're coping or not coping," he says. Later, he adds: "It's also imperative to our growth as fathers and the relationship with our children that we do the work to break/resolve any generational curses we may have inherited from our own fathers. Unlearning is harder than it seems but we must make a change if we want our children to be greater and go further." For Harris-Taylor, part of supporting that change is taking these pictures and offering the fathers she meets a space to share.