This piece is a continuation of Tina Boyadjieva: Finding the Common Thread and Exploring Motherhood for Lansinoh about how, Tina, a New York-based photographer, spent a grueling two months traveling all over the world to meet 65 breastfeeding mothers from many different walks of life. Lansinoh is a company that produces everything from creating helpful and informational content to breast pumps and nipple cream. When they came to Tina with this campaign idea, she ran with it, wanting to tell the very diverse stories of the mothers who take on the world every day with their little ones strapped to their backs, fronts, or car seats.
The rest of this piece has been written by Tina Boyadjieva and edited for clarity and length.
I picked the locations strategically so that all races and incomes would be represented. Pretty much every mother left me with an unforgettable story. I started in San Francisco with my friend Nhung, whose family escaped communism in Vietnam by boat, then stayed in Thai refugee camps before getting cleared to come to California.
Nhung’s parents didn’t speak English and struggled to make ends meet, but their children grew up educated and accomplished and realized their own American dreams. Nhung is my age and, like me, has experienced communism firsthand. She’s always struck me as generous, empathetic, and caring — once I heard her story, I knew why. I chose to photograph her and the baby at the Golden Gate Bridge as a symbol of transition and connection between her old and new life.
I then went to Sri Lanka, a place I love, having been there on personal trips before. My private bodyguard/driver — the best around — was my only contact there, but I knew that with him, I would find everything I needed in the four days I had. The last time I had visited Sri Lanka, my itinerary took me through the mountains where the tea plantations are, and I was blown away by the Tamil women who work the tea. These women are born, work, and die on the tea plantations — even their IDs carry their tea plantation’s name.
The Tamil women are incredible because they possess both physical and spiritual strength. They work for 12 hours picking sharp tea leaves with arms as strong as a saw, not to mention they have 4 – 5 children to feed with the wages they make in the fields and very little help from the men. The women are the ones who carry and support the family. They dress in beautiful colors, wear bright jewelry, and are not shy at all when you approach them. They were always happy to speak with me and applauded me when I yelled at their supervisor to pay them more.
I knew I had to photograph a mother from that background alongside one from a more affluent city, so my driver and I went to a random Tamil village. After about five minutes, I found the most beautiful curly-haired baby ever. His mom was happy to pose for me, and we took photos in front of some colorful walls, in the tea leaves hills, and toured the village together. I gave her $30 and spent some time in her home.
When I was leaving, she and a bunch of other women followed me to the car. She kissed my hands and started crying, which of course, made me cry. The driver later explained that she wasn’t crying because she was happy that I just gave her three months of rent. She was crying because I treated her as an equal; I went into her home, held her baby, and hugged and kissed her. No white people — or even local Sri Lankans — would probably ever do the same to make her feel like a respectable human being.
Africa, in general, has always been one of my favorite places in the world. My friend, John (from business school), and his wife Jean had hosted me and spoiled me on various occasions when we traveled through South Africa and Kenya. They put me in touch with a local charity organization in Johannesburg, which got me inside a township, or a local ghetto, which happens to be very violent and dangerous. I had a great time photographing several moms both indoors and outdoors (one of whom made it to the hero shot of Global Citizen’s article about my trip). It was a bit of a shock when I found out exactly how much crime pervades this place where I had just spent the day. It’s definitely not a very safe place for an unaccompanied, white, female photographer but I felt so honored to represent the women’s stories from such a place that would never get represented in normal circumstances.
Kenya was my ultimate favorite. I had met several Massaii warriors selling beads while previously on vacation on the tiny remote island of Lamu there. We kept in touch, and when this project came along, I wrote them that I wanted to visit their village in Amboseli Park on the outskirts of Mount Kilimanjaro.
I had the best driver and DJ in Nairobi and Kenya, Joseph. With a nice African music mix, we could drive for hours without knowing the time. I was his “lady boss” but I never treated him like anything less than me. I loved seeing the faces of people when I bought food for both of us or when I argued with the policeman who gave him a speeding ticket (while letting giant trucks way over the speed limit and much more dangerous just whizz by). It was also hilarious how we stopped traffic on the highway because everyone stopped to see a “misungu” boss (me) washing her own car on the side of the road while her driver was watching from the side. Joseph liked to dress well, and he had just put on a pressed white shirt while I had been wearing the same scrubs for the past three days — of course, I would wash the car by myself.
Being with the Massai was genuinely fantastic; the biggest thrill for me was seeing the children’s reaction to seeing a white person for the first time. They would pinch my skin and pull my highlighted hair to see if it felt like theirs. One girl starting screaming and ran away. Although I was allowed to sit in a chair and drink tea with the village’s men, while the women and children had to keep standing, watching from a distance, I took much more pleasure dressing up in Massai clothes with the women and dancing with the kids.
Turkey was a beautiful surprise as I got to meet both a city mom who decided to have a baby alone at the age of 42 and then the local Lansinoh representative who was so sweet and drove me to a small village on the border of Bulgaria. To her and my surprise, we ended up in a “pomak” village where her parents and grandparents spoke Bulgarian. Pomazi are a Muslim population in Bulgaria formed during the centuries of Ottoman rule in the Balkans. They were a subject of terrible discrimination during Bulgaria’s communist regime, and many decided to move across the border into Turkey.
I photographed a beautiful mother on the house’s porch with her kilims and garden flowers. Then, my favorite spot was in the barley fields: with the sparrows and poppies around, it felt like it was plucked from one of the classic Bulgarian novels. After the shoot, I found myself having Turkish coffee with all of the aunties and uncles who were equally excited to be speaking Bulgarian with a Bulgarian New Yorker, and we even video conferenced my mother in Brooklyn.
Europe was a crazy blur as I was shooting in the morning and then traveling to a new country every afternoon. Berlin, Warsaw, Paris, London, and Madrid, where I photographed a very close friend, Marta, who just had her second baby.
Back when Sandy wreaked havoc on my neighborhood in NYC, Marta and her husband Alfredo had taken me into their home. I walked for 2 hours from my apartment in Chelsea to their place, and they made everything better by cooking me a delicious tortilla and washing it down with some rioja. It was a pleasure to see my beautiful friend as one of the faces of the campaign.
Next was South America. I started off in Argentina. Silvia was the mother that left the most profound memory in me. At 25 years old, she had fallen in love and had a baby with a man who would not let her participate in a breastfeeding campaign at the time. Fifteen years later, with her now wonderful husband, she took me to the most “macho” known café in Buenos Aires, where up until a few years back, women couldn’t even enter, let alone breastfeed. We ordered our cortados, and she breastfed her daughter among the male chatter and busy waiters.
Brazil was a wonder of its own. There I photographed a mother who was a judo champion from a wealthy Rio neighborhood and a beautiful Baiana mother from the poor Salvador de Bahia neighborhood. It was the World Cup at the time, and Brazil played that night, so I couldn’t have been luckier to experience Salvador de Bahia.
Peru, of course, required a trip to Cuzco in search of an Incan mother. It was pure luck that I found the two mothers and their “lamita” in the center of Cuzco, and I was able to explain to them my project and why I needed to photograph them breastfeeding in the middle of the road.
The next day, I hired a driver to take me to the villages outside of Cuzco who had distinct folkloric outfits. We pulled over in a carpet shop, and once I explained what I was looking for, a young lady reached under the table with the carpets and pulled out her beautiful baby boy, who was dressed like a painting.
Guatemala was my “easy” territory as I had allowed myself five whole days to be there. Another close friend of mine from Duke lives there with his family. One of his investment projects is a recycled plastic basket weaving business that provides local indigenous women jobs. We drove to Guatemala City’s outskirts and met seven mothers under a porch in a rundown backyard. They had all dressed up and thought I’d photograph them there, as it was the neatest area of the house, but instead I took one of the mothers with me in the kitchen, where there was an open fire and a chicken about to be eaten for dinner. There is nothing to be ashamed of regardless of where you come from and how you live.
Mexico was memorable because I wanted to go to Oaxaca, an artistic region of Mexico I had never been to before. I found what I was looking for as I walked through the market where artisans were selling all kinds of beautiful handmade weavings, linens, and trinkets. The biggest challenge that day was not finding the moms but convincing them that the model release I needed them to sign would not let me steal their children. Unfortunately, this was the time when immigrants would be separated from their children at the US border. As an American photographer, the suspicion and fear of losing their little ones was real. It took me spending hours sitting with them at the market chatting about men in America, making them laugh in my broken Spanish, for me to gain their trust and have them sign.
The grand finale was the mother I photographed in New York City— Daria, a beautiful Ukrainian-born American who married a friend of mine, a local news reporter celebrity from a Chinese background. I couldn’t find a better representation of beauty and diversity than photographing her and her baby in the middle of Times Square.
The whole experience was a significant confirmation of what I already knew: how magically wonderful and diverse the world we live in is and how little it takes to make someone feel worthy of living their life.
Lansinoh USA: Erin Langley, Zenda Simms
Airtreks: Julia Kwan
Drivers: Anthony in Sri Lanka, Joseph in Kenya, the Massai from Namelock in Amboseli
Friends: Carmen, John and Jean, Philip and his family
Publications: Global Citizen, Good Morning America, Buzzfeed, Huffington Post, and all the rest who reflected this work.
See more of Tina’s work at tinabfoto.com.
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