Berlin-based photographer Marina Hoppmann was just 17 years old when she lost her mum, Ria. The two of them had been exceptionally close and the experience turned Hoppmann's world upside down. She knew it was coming, she says – her mum had incurable cancer – but she’d been refusing to acknowledge the signs for so long that when the time finally came, it didn't seem real. "I think especially in your teenage years, death seems really far away," she says, "and looking back, everything is still a bit of a blur." Hoppmann was 6 years old when her mum first got sick and it changed not just her mum’s mindset but the whole family’s. "Because death was close once," she says, "we really appreciated each moment we had together."
In her latest photo series, Mothers and Daughters, Hoppmann takes on the emotional task of interrogating this loss and meets other young women who have been through the same. She photographs the women in their personal spaces, then accompanies their portraits with old family photos and notes or letters written by each daughter after their mother’s passing. She does the same with herself too, placing her own image and family archive in among the others. Hoppmann had wanted to make a project about her mother for a long time but felt too vulnerable at first. It was only when she began longing for connection with people who had been through the same experience that she was inspired to begin. In the first pictures she took of herself, she wore her mother’s old clothes; it was a way of taking a portrait of them together, love and loss entwined in each image.
The first woman Hoppmann photographed for the project was a stranger named Zsuzsanna, whose social media post about missing her mum happened to come up in her feed. Suspecting that Zsuzsanna’s situation was similar to her own, she wrote her an email. "She sent a positive response and as soon as we met, we dived right into the topic and had a really honest conversation," Hoppmann explains. "I thought I wouldn’t get too emotional because we didn’t know each other but hearing her speak about her own experience deeply touched me." Zsuzsanna turned up wearing her mum’s blouse and jeans and sat down to pose against a white backdrop, looking back over her shoulder at the camera. The women talked as Hoppmann worked and although Zsuzsanna had lost her mum much earlier than Hoppmann – before she was a teenager – they had much in common and shared all sorts of feelings with each other.
After this, Hoppmann reached out to more strangers, as well as some friends of hers. There's Carmela, for instance, whose portrait shows her peering towards the camera with gentle sadness, and Maya, photographed at a similar age to the picture of her mum, the two of them strikingly alike. All the emotion is right there in front of us, in their faces and in the way Hoppmann took their pictures with sensitivity and love. It wasn’t always easy to confront grief like this, she says, but she felt less lonely when she was with these women and opening up was an infinitely more therapeutic experience than trying to push it from her mind.
Grief is still such a difficult subject for people to talk about in an open and honest way, and we still seem to find so much awkwardness in knowing how best to support a grieving person. Though she can only speak for herself, Hoppmann says that she always appreciates it when someone asks her about her mother directly. "I think a lot of people are afraid to approach the topic of grieving because they don't want to churn something up and yes, it can be really tough, but as long as it’s in a safe and intimate situation, I think grieving can only get better when talking about it."
For Hoppmann, grief has been a life-changing journey – an ever present spectre which changes shape across the years. In the early days, she says, it felt like she was living a parallel life somewhere beyond herself, and she just could not get her head around how to manage a future without her mother in it. "It was hard to accept that something like this had happened to me," she says, "and really it still is. With the passing of time I got used to a certain kind of sadness – one that always accompanies me and that will never heal. I miss her in my everyday life and there will always be moments or periods where I wish I had her by my side."
One of the key aspects of this particular type of loss – when a daughter loses her mother – is never having the chance to establish an adult female friendship with your mum. "That’s what I miss the most," Hoppmann says. "Our physical relationship ended when I was 17 so our conversations just went to a certain level. There is so much I want to ask my mother. She only knows 17-year-old me, she will never meet my boyfriend, she doesn't know my profession… all of that is really painful. I wish I could ask her about how she felt when she was my age and I can imagine when becoming a mother myself I will get into a whole new phase of grieving, too. I guess we are a lot alike, so I really miss the exchange on so many levels."
Mothers and Daughters is, in the end, an honest and unassuming excavation of loss. And while it is a project about so many lives and memories, the image of Hoppmann’s mother remains at the centre, radiant and glowing, reminding us why all these women are gathered here. In the picture of Hoppmann and her mum from the past, they sit cradled together in a woven hammock, looking directly into the lens. As Hoppmann’s mum leans into her daughter, a small smile dances on her lips. The pair are all arms and legs, and they share the same dark eyes. "I dreamed of Mama again. Everything was so clear and she was so beautiful," Hoppmann writes in the letter that accompanies this picture. "I imagine us sitting in that hammock today, drinking wine, dancing together and wondering about life." Later, in her self-portrait as an adult, she lies on a white bed wearing her mum’s top and jewellery, the cable of a shutter release snaking up towards her hand. She’s alone this time but she has the same intensity of gaze as when she was a child. And she still has her mother’s eyes.
Remembering her mum, Hoppmann describes her as loving, attentive and strong, and an endlessly positive person, even when she was sick. "She was also a really direct woman and extremely loyal, and when something didn’t suit her, she spoke it out loud," she recalls warmly. Now that she’s grown, she says, that’s something she aspires to also – as a woman, and in her work.