Ashlee Dean Wells is the photographer and founder of the 4th Trimester Bodies Project. Her gorgeous black and white images of mothers after having children are a celebration of body diversity that plays a key role in the project’s mission to educate, embrace and empower humans through photographs and story telling.
I interviewed Ashlee in the lead-up to her open studio session at the Nest Family Expo in West Springfield, MA on Sunday April 09, 2017.
Can you give us a general overview of what the Fourth Trimester Body Project is?
4th Trimester Bodies Project is a movement dedicated to educating, embracing and empowering humans through photographs and story telling.
We are currently touring world wide capturing images and stories.
We are hosting gatherings so that we can reach and connect with other humans in positive light as we talk about body positivity, postpartum care, and so many other amazing things that affect our lives intimately.
We are launching a podcast series and blog.
We have published our first book.
The project exists because humans, particularly women, are judged too crudely on the way we look and are often told we don’t measure up. Because no real person can compete with the tools in Photoshop and glossy magazine covers. And because parenthood is sacred and should be celebrated.
This project exists because sometimes babies are born too soon. Because sometimes babies die. Because sometimes the best laid birth plans and the reality of our births are two very different things. And because sometimes they are everything we dreamed just the same.
Because regardless of how our babies get here we should be proud and, regardless of how we choose to feed them, we should be able to feed them where we choose whenever they are hungry.
This project exists because women and men and society need it. Because our sons and daughters deserve more. Because we deserve more.
This project exists because normalizing what is normal is a need this earth has been denying for too long.
This project exists because as feminists we have an obligation to be intersectional, inclusive, and aware. Because the personal is always political. Because the choice to become a parent and our reproductive rights and freedoms are connected hand in hand. Because our voices are so much louder when we shout together.
And perhaps most importantly because we humans, in all of presentations, identities, and abilities, are beautiful – stretches, stripes, scars and all.
You have worn several hats in your career as a photographer. Can you tell us how your experience as a Pin Up photographer informed your current work?
In my work as a pin up photographer I work with everyday people looking to capture a timeless moment in their lives. Very often these photos involved some degree of allure and/or sexiness and a level of undress. At the core of this then is a person’s relationship with their body. While my studio prides itself on being body positive and inclusive we still have to speak through this relationship in every session and typically overcome some challenges. This experience has greatly informed my current work in the understanding that these challenges are human challenges that present themselves even more acutely in times of transition such as pregnancy, birth, and postpartum.
How many women have you photographed to date?
We are just shy of 2,500 adult participants for 4TBP
When you started, did you have any idea how massive this project would become?
I didn’t have any idea! When we began I didn’t think that anyone would really embrace the movement until we had published our book and/or really established some history. Instead, just a few weeks after I released our first image we were inundated with support and celebration
What are some of the responses you’ve had from women in the project after they do their photo shoot and tell their story?
The experience is always transformative. Every person who comes to shoot with us is nervous but has a story to tell. From taking the leap to share themselves in such a public and intimate way to joining the community this movement has created it is a very transformative experience.
When someone first comes into your studio, before you begin photographing them, how are they feeling? How do you calm any nerves that may have developed in the car ride over?
Everyone is nervous but we do so much prep work before someone arrives for a session that by time they arrive they’re more eager to jump in and do it.
How involved are the women you photograph in the process of choosing the photo that ultimately gets published in the Fourth Trimester Body Project?
In all of our private sessions our participants are in charge of selecting their final images. I narrow down their shots a bit and then we sit together while we select the image that best represents their family.
As I work on the Biographie Series, many of the women who tell their stories say that it is empowering for them to share the full story about one aspect of their lives, and how different that is to what their followers get on Instagram. Have mothers that you’ve worked with had similar experiences?
Absolutely. As humans we have a biological need to share our stories yet we don’t often get the opportunity to do so. Even more so, I feel that in today’s society we are more connected than ever more yet somehow more isolated. Having forums and opportunities to share our stories is a relief – it is healing, it is cathartic, it is empowering.