Breaking the Image of Mother and Child

The front cover of the newest issue of Time Magazine shows a mother breastfeeding a boy who appears old enough to make himself a sandwich. The caption on the bottom right hand corner of the photograph seeks to clarify the boy’s age as it reads “Jamie Lynne Grumet, 26, and her 3-year-old son”. The assumption that the boy is too old to be breastfed is the taboo that the magazine is addressing head on with this photograph by Martin Schoeller. The Washington Post writes, rather cunningly, ‘Time cover milks shocking image’.

The Time cover is of course not the first product of visual culture that seeks to provoke the viewer in such fashion: the Australian hit TV show ‘The Slap’ similarly portrayed a young mother feeding her 4-year-old boy. The boy’s constant nagging for his mother’s breast milk creates an intriguing subplot in which the husband feels increasingly ostracised and alienated from his wife. The alcoholic father seeks to overcome his jealousy with a different type of oral fixation by continuously drinking beer throughout the entire eight part series. Crucially, in a brilliant portrayal of the deeply psychoanalytical (and Freudian) conditions unfolding in the show, the father is drinking beer straight from the bottle, not too unlike a child drinking milk from a bottle.


Rosie, played by Melissa George, breastfeeding her child in ‘The Slap’, 2011

In contrast to the quasi-documentary style of ‘The Slap’ however, the Time cover is more ‘shocking’. But how? Firstly, the photograph seeks to confuse the viewer with regards to the boy’s age with one crucial detail: the boy is standing on a chair. The boy thus appears taller, and by extension, he appears older than he actually is. To illustrate that point I would suggest that the knowledge of the boy’s age is far less provocative than the photograph. In addition to that, rather than having his eyes closed or looking at his mother, the boy, rather creepily, looks towards the camera. This gaze back to the viewer implies an awareness of the camera, an awareness of a person looking at himself, and ultimately, an awareness of a person looking at himself sucking his mother’s breast. The boy’s gaze implies so many layers of looking that it could easily be confused with the gaze of an adult. This is the visual trickery in this image, that even though the boy is only 3-years-old, his height and his knowing gaze make him appear much older. His army style trousers and grey top, clothing perhaps associated with a teenager, further confuse a perception of his age.

I would suggest that the ‘shock’ lies less in the boy sucking his mother’s breast than it lies in the mother. The clue for this can be found in the headline of a blog on the Slate website: ‘Why Is This Attractive Woman Breast-Feeding This Giant Child?’ The headline implies that if the the woman was ‘unattractive’ then perhaps we wouldn’t be wondering why she is breastfeeding her child. The way the photograph was taken ultimately feeds into the perception that this woman is not simply a woman, but she is an attractive woman: her clothes accentuate her slim body, she hold her right hand on her hips much like a model in a fashion shoot, and, like her son, she looks knowingly straight into the camera.


Visual references of mother and child, at the cover shoot.

Three behind the scenes photographs from the shoot supplied by Time’s Lightbox blog indicate that the magazine and the photographer studied classical representations of breast feeding. In spite of the visual references taped on the wall of the photo studio, the photograph that was eventually chosen for the cover has few similarities with any previous form of representation: the mother does not look lovingly at her child, she does not hold her child, nor does the child hold her mother. Standing tall, the mother does not adopt a bodily position associated with nursing a child. Ignoring all these signifiers of motherhood, in the photograph, the mother does not look like a mother. This is perhaps the real ‘shock’ in the photograph: it lacks a history of representation, a history of visual references or precedents. The photograph is, in the true sense of the word, iconoclastic: it metaphorically breaks the classical and idealistic image of mother and child.

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4 thoughts on “Breaking the Image of Mother and Child

  1. How absolutely fantastic to see a breast-feeding mother who does NOT subscribe to the Disneyfied ‘pink, pliant and powerless’ image of modern women.

  2. The army-style trousers and grey do indeed reference teenage fashion, pushing our perception of the child’s age. It is also important to recognize the signification chain one more layer deep, to the military itself. We are a waring nation, a nation currently at war and fighting an unending “war on terror”. In this image our American child abroad, the American military, receives sustenance from the teet of the mother homeland.

  3. The Idea is brilliant but I would say it is very sad that strictly commercial photography is compared to the Art here … This photograph supports the article inside the magazine. Without understanding the content of this article (someone is looking at this photograph without any text hanging on the wall for example) could be confusing.

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