A heavily-tattooed domestic abuse survivor has posed naked as the Virgin Mary while breastfeeding her son for a photo series that aims to prove being a mother and a sexually-empowered woman do not have to be mutually exclusive.
Leah, who became a mother after getting out of an abusive relationship, was photographed by New York-based photographer Reka Nyari, 39, as part of her ‘Ink’ project.
The incredible images include intimate shots of Leah sitting down and breastfeeding her toddler son on her lap with a halo above her head as a symbol of the Virgin Mary.
Religious figure: Reka Nyari, 39, photographed Leah breastfeeding her toddler son nude while posing as the Virgin Mary as part of her ‘Mother Ink’ series
Empowering: Leah, who became a mother after getting out of an abusive relationship, said the shoot reminded her that she can be a mom and still be beautiful
For the past three years, Reka has been working on her ‘Ink’ series, which depicts ‘incredible, extremely tattooed women and their life stories.’
The photographer said she became interested in shooting a series about motherhood, breastfeeding, and the over-sexualization of the female body after she gave birth to her own daughter.
As a new mother, Reka found that breastfeeding is still a taboo, especially when it is done in public or involves a toddler.
‘The “Mother Ink” series portrays a young, tattooed woman, who’s taken on the character of the Virgin Mary, the ultimate symbol of motherhood and love,’ she explained.
Reka said she messaged Leah and asked her to be the subject of her newest project after seeing photos of the mom on Instagram.
Role of a lifetime: Reka’s ‘Mother Ink’ series portrays a young, tattooed woman taking on the character of the Virgin Mary
Inspiration: The photographer said she became interested in shooting a series about motherhood, breastfeeding, and the over-sexualization of the female body after giving birth
‘She is heavily tattooed, recently had a baby, and was breastfeeding her son,’ the photographer said. ‘She’s got a very unique life story of leaving an abusive relationship and being a single mother.’
The artist said she begins each of her series by getting to know her subject’s life story. They spend a few months talking and writing to each other before planning and researching the shoot.
‘I aim for each story to be as authentic as possible, while visually engaging and beautiful,’ Reka said. ‘There is a lot of trust and a connection between me and my subjects. I feel very privileged that they open up and let me share their stories with the world.’
With Leah, she wanted to show that a woman can be both a nurturing mother and a sexual being at the same time.
‘In these images, we see her nursing and playing with her son, full of tenderness and devotion,’ she said. ‘Her body, still a tool for self-expression and sexuality, has also become a sanctuary of nourishment and security.
‘She is a mother, yet a sexually empowered woman. There is no reason why these two powers should not co-exist.’
Star power: Reka said she messaged Leah and asked her to be the subject of her newest project after seeing photos of the mom on Instagram.
More than meets the eye: ‘She is a mother, yet a sexually empowered woman. There is no reason why these two powers should not co-exist,’ Reka said of Leah
For Leah, the photo shoot served as a reminder that she can be a mother and still feel beautiful.
‘The project helped me re-connect with feeling beautiful. I was so focused on being a mom, the experience really made me feel gorgeous again,’ she said.
‘The message I hope people see right away is the naturalness and love in breastfeeding and motherhood. If they look deeper and read my story, I hope they feel the empowerment.’
While Reka knows that the religious iconography may displease some, she believes the portraits accurately portray the love and devotion of a mother, which the Virgin Mary symbolizes.
‘Some people will find the religious references disturbing; however, they should keep in mind that the Virgin Mother has been portrayed nude, breastfeeding, topless, and even squirting milk in religious iconography since the beginning of Christianity,’ Reka said.
‘Censorship of the nipple is rather a modern idea,’ she added. ‘Mary has been portrayed breastfeeding a naked baby Jesus, in public for all to see, and it was not considered disturbing or slutty, but a beautiful and natural display of motherly love — as it should be.’
Added element: The photographer said she likes to photograph subjects with tattoos because their stories are literally ‘written on their bodies with ink’
Goal: Leah hopes people will see ‘naturalness and love in breastfeeding and motherhood’ in the portraits
Reka admitted she faced a few obstacles while creating her newest ‘Mother Ink’ series, but she believes these minor setbacks are what keep her work interesting and challenging.
‘In Leah’s case, her son got sick the night before the shoot, his first fever, actually,’ she recounted. ‘So, I was nervous that we’d have to cancel the whole production we had worked on for months. Luckily, he got better overnight.
She explained that it is ‘always very difficult’ and ‘very unpredictable’ when photographing babies.
‘We had to shoot fast as babies don’t have long attention spans,’ she said. ‘It was a lot less about planned shots and lot more about getting what the mother and baby felt like doing at the moment.
‘He wanted to feed a lot, so I captured Leah breastfeeding. It was very organic,’ she added. ‘I love narrative photography, where there is so much more than meets the eye; these images are multi-layered.’
Reka pointed out that her subjects’ tattoos add another element to the stories that she is trying to tell with her series.
Nothing new: Reka noted that the ‘Virgin Mother has been portrayed nude, breastfeeding, topless, and even squirting milk in religious iconography since the beginning of Christianity’
Moved: Reka said some people have been so moved by her portraits that they cried when they saw them hanging in a gallery
‘There is a story behind the accessories, symbolism, and pose, but the subject’s life stories are literally also written on their bodies with ink,’ she said.
‘There are a lot of messages to my work. I aim to show a woman who’s strong, empowered, and in charge of her sexuality and her destiny. Nudity does not equate to sexuality, unless she so wishes.’
Reka prints her pieces on large archival pigment prints, explaining that ‘they look a little bit like old silver gelatine prints, or like massive charcoal drawings.’
The photographer said some people have been so moved by her portraits that they cried when they saw them hanging in a gallery.
‘A lot of the work deals with trauma and abuse that women have overcome, and it can be very touching,’ she explained.
‘Most of my collectors are actually women, which I find to be a huge compliment. The images are nude not to sexualize my subjects, but simply because that is the only way that the stories on their skin can be seen.’