The "Hidden Mothers" by Emily Eunsuh Chun

I recently saw an exhibition called “(un)expected families” at the Museum of Fine Arts. There was one section displaying the photographs of “hidden mothers” – fascinating, sometimes unintentionally comical, Victorian-era photographs that show infants in the laps of mothers who are completely covered in and hidden under fabric. Because getting infants to sit still for the long exposure periods of Victorian-era photography technology was impossible, mothers or nursemaids were draped with blankets and disguised as furniture or backdrop to help keep the baby still.

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I think about this a lot, especially as it relates to justice-oriented organizing work. I think about the symbolism of this Victorian-era photographic tactic, and how the photographic invisibility of the mothers functions as a reflection of the larger unappreciated, invisible emotional and physical labor mothers have performed throughout history. In these photographs, it is the mothers who are doing the work of keeping the baby still, but the mechanics of their work are made invisible. Working at the Transformative Culture Project, I have been learning how nonprofits and justice-oriented organizing work prop up so much of society but their work is largely invisibilized because it is not easily quantifiable. And I have been realizing how justice-oriented work carries burdens and the emotional pulse of a country way out of proportion to the actual (minimal) credit they get.

 

Through the incredible staff at my organization, I have been learning the many forms justice-oriented work can take. I learn it in microcosms; in the microcosm of our office, we try to share power and experiment with decentralized, horizontal hierarchy. In the microcosm of my intentional community, we learn what makes each of us thrive or withdraw. In the microcosm of my personal life, I learn that justice-oriented work starts with healing in my personal relationships. As we reach the mid-point of our fellowship year, I hope to lean in to deeper reflection of how all this operates alongside each other.