Since 2003, British documentary photographer Olivia Arthur has journeyed around the world extensively for her work. She’s travelled India and the border between Europe and Asia, photographed the lived experiences of women in Iran and Saudi Arabia, and visualised Dubai through the eyes of a stranger. She’s taken photographs depicting modern love in all its iterations along the banks of the Danube, and documented life in Ugandan and Tanzanian villages for Water Aid. "I didn’t grow up in one particular place because my family travelled a lot," she explains. "Perhaps that has given me the itchy feet and curiosity about the world that led me to become a photographer in the first place."
Earlier this year, the Magnum Photos photographer was invited to take part in HOME, a group project which saw a number of the agency’s photographers shoot what the notion of 'home' means to them. It was somewhat different from the far-flung commissions she's used to. At the time, Arthur was pregnant with her second child, a baby girl to be called Lorelei, and her impulses took her on a new type of journey. This time, her odyssey was inwards.
"I had been making black and white portraits for a while when I became pregnant for the second time, and I decided that I wanted to make some portraits of myself in that period too," she explains. As she began to turn the camera upon herself, the process naturally expanded into a documentation of her family unit; the resulting project, Waiting for Lorelei, forms a beautiful, deeply moving portrait of a little family preparing to grow from three to four. Moments of calm, interspersed with moments of action, are illuminated in black and white in front of her lens.
"These weren’t the first self-portraits I’ve taken, but it was the first time I’ve photographed myself intensely like this or put myself in the spotlight," Arthur says. "I never really found myself very interesting before but this experience of being pregnant made me see myself quite differently, I was more curious about myself because I became something that I am not familiar with. That’s a special experience, you see yourself from the outside, not just as you."
When it came to photographing in such a personal capacity, there was a different sort of emotional weight from the kind Arthur was used to, but she says it still felt comfortable to both her and her family from the start. "We are all pretty used to the camera in the family. My husband is also a photographer, so it wasn’t a problem to photograph. I often make quite personal pictures in other people’s worlds so it felt natural that when I should photograph my own world, the images should also be personal and intimate."
Arthur says there was a gentle apprehension among her family about how things would change with the arrival of Lorelei. "I think the arrival of any baby comes with apprehension and, while the first time you go into it (despite knowing what everybody says) with a certain naivety about how you will handle it, the second time you know that it’s going to be an upheaval on all of you. Particularly for the older child who can’t really be prepared for how things are going to change, even though you keep telling them."
The images in Waiting for Lorelei distil this feeling of anticipation, and many of them depict very still, very quiet moments that feel around the edges of the anxieties and expectations of impending motherhood. "I’m really glad that I recorded this period of waiting because it’s the part that gets so quickly forgotten after the baby is born and life becomes all about them and the chaos and emotions that come with them. I think waiting and anticipation are very intense (and sometimes difficult) emotions that get easily overlooked by the event when it comes. It certainly made me think about them more and not just rush on forwards as we all tend to do at these times." It’s no surprise, then, that one of Arthur’s favourite images in the series is one of her more abstract ones, in which a surgical hat appears suspended, or floating, in mid-air against an illuminated curtain, the scene bathed in clinical white. "It was taken at that moment of intense waiting, nervousness and excitement and yet it is strangely calm and beautiful too. It’s lots of things all together," she says.
One of the most powerful images in Arthur’s series is undoubtedly one of the very last, in which Lorelei, just seconds after being born via Caesarean, is held by a doctor under the surgical spotlight, hovering above Arthur’s body and seen as if through her mother’s eye. It’s the image all of those other anticipatory images were leading towards; the climax of all that shared experience. "My husband Philipp took it for obvious reasons, but we had asked them in advance if we could do it, and they agreed to drop the dividing cloth down the moment she was out," she reflects. "It was a complete rush of emotions and I was holding her just seconds later."