Photographer Sophie Harris-Taylor’s new body of work is all about becoming a dad and the first few years of fatherhood. Titled Present Fathers, the series was inspired by watching her own partner adjust to being a father.
“My partner was pretty lucky to have several months of paternity leave so we were very much both involved from day one. Sometime after the birth of our son though, I realised he didn’t really know where to turn for support, or to explore and express this new role he’d found himself in,” explains Harris-Taylor. “It made me wonder about the experiences of the countless other new fathers out there who we just don’t really hear from or see, at least not in comparison to new mothers. I guess that was the starting point of the project.”
In previous projects, such as Milk which focused on the realities of breastfeeding, the photographer has put motherhood at the forefront of her work. But, in a similar way to how Harry Borden’s recent book Single Dad subverts long-held ideas around fatherhood and masculinity, with Present Fathers, Harris-Taylor wanted to broaden the discussion.
“In a time when we’re trying to close the gender gap, and many men are taking on a more prominent parenting role, there seems to be an absence of support or discussion of [fatherhood],” she says. “I realised the lack of focus on new dads after my son was born and wanted to see if there was something dads could get from speaking about their own experiences and hearing those of others.”
While Harris-Taylor typically uses her own experiences to inform her work, this time the photographer used her partner’s experience to guide her. However she admits that as she’s only ever been an observer to fatherhood, there was a slight disconnect.
“That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy making the work, but I didn’t get that therapeutic experience I usually get when making work,” the photographer explains. “The process was pretty much the same otherwise, and the outcome has a similar aesthetic and structure.”
The work takes the form of portraits, along with interviews by the photographer in which the fathers featured speak honestly about their experiences and the pressures felt. “A lot of the process was quite organic and spontaneous. I worked with my friend and stylist Natasha Freeman – we had kids at the same time and spoke quite a bit about the lack of support networks there are for dads out there,” she says. “We styled them in their own clothes, in a way keeping it as ‘unstyled’ as possible.”
With the Covid restrictions at the time, Harris-Taylor connected with fathers local to her, either through friends or through Instagram castings. All were captured in the comfort of their own homes, which the photographer felt added an authenticity to their actions and appearances. “I also think having the kids there brought their guards down a bit,” she says.
Harris-Taylor’s photography often toes the line between staged and documentary and with this series it was about striking that balance while making the everyday a bit more beautiful. “Working within the confines of their own homes, I tried to find the pockets of space where the light was coming in, dramatising an often quite mundane space,” she explains. “Working with babies and toddlers means time’s pretty short, I had to work quickly and definitely couldn’t control everything I’d want to! I think this gives the series a kind of heightened reality, it is both truthful and, hopefully, still beautiful.”
Despite the regular challenges of working within restrictions, one of the main obstacles was making sure her subjects felt comfortable enough to engage. “For the most part the men really opened up, sharing their experiences, but I felt for some it was tricky, possibly having been brought up not to express themselves in that way,” explains Harris-Taylor. “I imagine the answers would be quite different for my father’s generation, and also for my son’s.”
For the fathers featured, it provided them with an opportunity to pause and self-reflect in a way they might not have done before, with the interview element adding a deeper layer to the images. “For some, I think speaking about it also gave them some validation to their experience,” adds Harris-Taylor. “A recurring theme from many was a new understanding and reappraisal of their own upbringing and actions of their own parents.”
For Harris-Taylor it allowed her to hear about parenting and the responsibilities that come with it from a different perspective. “The images aren’t anything we’ve not seen before per se, but I think the texts that go alongside show an openness and honesty to fatherhood,” she says. “For other recent fathers (or even older ones) I hope this encourages them to also share their experiences and for an increased insight to those around them.”