April 2016

Portland Photo Month Featured Photographer

Katharine T. Jacobs

Emily and Phyllis | Palo Alto, California | 2015

Koho and Her Boys | Albany, Oregon | 2015

Joelle and Tabitha | Clatskanie, Oregon | 2015

Stepmotherhood

I was twenty-three when I met my daughter. I had no children; in fact I had spent what felt like my whole life through a serious of great efforts to avoid having a baby. She was almost two when her dad introduced us. He made it clear that they were a package deal. We took our time and tried to do it right and in the end I believe we all chose each other. She was and is easy to love, but it came with its own set of challenges. I understood that I wasn’t her mother despite the motherly things I did that soon became commonplace. We shared intimate moments, held deep affections for one another, and struggled with conflict. Still we were bonded in a way that was less than motherhood and more than friendship.

I felt conflicted and found it impossible to identify with the term stepmother; such a cold, shameful, wicked sounding word that I didn’t think embodied the beauty and significance of our relationship. In an effort to understand my role in this blended family I began making portraits of other families that identify with the term “Stepmother”.  I was trying to learn from my subjects in their natural habitats, hoping that this new knowledge could help me in my own situation.

Using online forums and word of mouth I have been introduced into the homes and intimate spaces of over thirty families to photograph stepmothers with their stepchildren. While making a portrait I am removed from the situation. Using a large format camera allows me to capture truer moments in the relationship between my subjects. In the time it takes to focus and compose a photograph the subjects have lost the initial nerves and awkward responses that most people have when being photographed. When those instincts fall away true body language is all the prevails enabling me to capture the innate response these two people have for each other, often its love, compromise and compassion but sometimes it is sorrow, hurt and regret.

After working on this project for over two years with the help of the Regional Arts and Culture Council, I no longer cringe at the word Stepmother.  Being able to see and share the intimate details of these families across five different states has taught me that (step) motherhood comes in all varieties.  Regardless of the difficulties and the joys of their relationships these women share a pride in their families that is undeniable. This series of portraits is an exploration in the different ways that family shapes who we are whether we are children with no choice, adults that make sacrifices or just people who are doing their best.