Amara Eno’s series The 25 Percent began as a way for the photographer to start a conversation about her own experience of being raised in a one parent family. It has evolved into an ongoing project which explores the landscape of single parenthood across the UK.
In this interview, curator Louise Pearson speaks to Amara about the project and four works from the series which have entered the collection at the National Galleries of Scotland.
Louise Pearson: Amara, the title of your series references the statistic that 25 percent of households with children in the UK are single parent families. That’s a huge number – why do you think it’s important that the experiences of these families are heard?
Amara Eno: It is a really huge number. I remember first reading that statistic before I had officially started the project and being so shocked by it because, broken down, that is one in four people so statistically in every group of friends you should know at least one person who was raised by a single parent.
I grew up in a single parent household and yet in my school with over 1,000 students I could only count a handful of peers that I was aware of that didn’t live with both parents under the same roof. Based on the statistics it is hardly because these families don’t exist. We do, one in four of us do, so I concluded that people weren’t really talking about it and so I wanted to delve more into why that might be.
I grew up hearing words such as ‘breakdown of the family’, ‘poverty’ and that we all ‘grow up on council estates’ and ‘drop out of school’. For some people that is their reality but for me it wasn’t. I just think that for a long time, single parent families have been negatively impacted by these stereotypes.
It has been time for a long time now to start talking about this a bit more and moving away from that assumption that growing up raised by a single parent or being a single parent is a negative thing and that it is going to narrow your prospects for success. So the base level reason for a project that shares the experience of single parent families was my desire to break down those negative stereotypes and reframe people’s ideas of what a nuclear family can look like.
LP: I was interested in how you connected with the families that you photographed, because it has been a UK-wide project, hasn’t it.
AE: It started in Cornwall, which is where I went to university. It was around five years ago when I was in my second or third year. We had been given multiple briefs we had to arrange shoots for. And then I remember reading this statistic. I started contacting support groups around Cornwall, went to a few sessions with them and through that I met people through word of mouth and social media.
I guess what helped me connect with people in the beginning was that I wasn’t just a stranger walking into this setting and asking people to share their life stories with me. I was able to share my own, it was part of my experience as well and I was part of that community. So, people were a lot more open with welcoming me into their families. We just had that in common and so it built from there and I started thinking about branching out from Cornwall.
Social media and word of mouth were the biggest drivers in that, but I was lucky enough to connect with a few charities based in London and Scotland that helped me meet a host more families and groups of people who were based all over. Since then it has grown and people have started reaching out to me from all over the UK.
LP: It sounds as if you have had a very positive reaction from the families that you contacted that has moved the project on. Did you find that people wanted to talk about their experiences?
AE: I had come across a project that was focussed on single dads, which is a whole other topic of conversation, but I’d never really come across a photography project that was based specifically on the stories and the outlets of single parents, or at least it wasn’t in the media that I was consuming.
I realised that this was an opportunity for people to share their own words and stories but also I realised that a lot of people were receptive to it because they hadn’t had that before as well.
LP: One of the most interesting aspects of the project is that you include the text with each photograph. The text comes from the interviews that you did with the parents. I wondered if you wanted to talk a bit about why you felt that including their words in their own handwriting was an important aspect of the series.
AE: Originally when I started out and I was going to meet families and taking photographs, we would spend hours and hours having conversations. I would record some of our conversations sometimes just so that when I was meeting loads of families at once I was able to listen back and understand their stories and revisit them without having to rely on just what I had written down.
But I was also bringing notebooks and writing things down myself, and I think I saw opportunity in that. I realised that a lot of the parents I was speaking to had never had a chance to vent. If they were having a bad day or just wanted a break, they didn’t have another parent they could just pass the kid on to or they didn’t have a circle of people around them who could understand what they were going through at that time.
I then saw an opportunity for this project to become more of a visual journal and I wanted it to not just be creating that positive imagery of people and challenging that family photo through my own lens but I also wanted it to be a space where people’s stories and words and thoughts could be heard on their own terms and in their own words and I wanted it to be a vehicle of self-expression and empowerment for people.
The handwritten text element was a very effective way of doing that. I would ask parents just to write down their thoughts about what it was to be a single parent. It could be positive or negative, long or short, it could literally be one word.
A lot of parents said they felt like they’d been put on the spot and I just asked if they were writing in their journal, what would they put on the page? It could even be nothing to do with what it is to be a single parent. I asked them to write whatever came to mind and a lot of people felt it was quite a refreshing exercise.
On top of that the kids ended up wanting to be involved so while the parents were doing that I would ask the kids to draw pictures of what their family looked like to them and that whole experience and exercise for me provided a really unique insight or window into how people saw themselves in the context of their lives and in society but also just what they were going through at the time.
Some people’s handwriting was really frantic and messy which reflected how fast life was going for them or how chaotic life felt for them at that time while others was more neat and felt more considered. So that reflected a bit more the stability of their feeling. That was to me why the handwritten element was so important and I don’t really think the project would have felt right or balanced without it.
LP: It definitely does bring a different layer to the portrait, especially as the text is presented at the same scale as the photograph. It does feel like a layered approach to the portrait which is really interesting. And I think it’s interesting that you feel the joy they have in their children but also the particular circumstances that these families are in come out as well so it does feel like a very balanced portrayal of single parenthood. I wondered if you wanted to speak about how you thought the project might develop in the future or if you felt like you have captured everything that you wanted to.
AE: I don’t think I have captured everything I wanted to yet. For now it is on a hiatus largely down to the pandemic. At the peak moment when I was meeting families it was a lot of information to take in and process. I wanted it to be a catalogue of people’s stories and the diversity of the single parent community but also I didn’t just want it to be ticking things off a list to meet a quota.
I was showing the project to people and because I had met mainly single mothers through the project so far, I was starting to realise that a lot of people were calling it a ‘single mothers project’, even though I had met a handful of fathers. That is also down to the ratio of mothers to fathers in the single parent community. There is a big difference but it was also not just a mother and father thing. I wanted to meet more parents that had become a single parent by choice or young parents.
At that time I was getting people telling me where they were based and that they wanted to be a part of the project. I had a database of names and was telling people that when I got to that area I’d be able to meet them. The pandemic has made me pause and think about how I can consciously start to explore this community more and not just tick names off a list, and think more about the representation within the community.
So I think going forward I am hoping to start delving more into the different sub-sections of the community and meeting more young parents, meeting more single parents by choice, meeting more single fathers, people with different routes into the community and I think that going forward is what I want to do more.
This interview was conducted in February 2022.
Welcoming new artists to the collection
We want to show you who lives in Scotland today and Art Fund are helping us do that.
Census year is an opportunity to think about who isn’t in our collection. We know some of you don’t see yourself in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery. We want to change that.
There are lots of new acquisitions in Counted: Scotland's Census 2022. We hope they give you a sense of the wonderful range of people living in Scotland.
We’ve worked with photographers from a range of backgrounds. For many of them, it’s the first time they have had their work shown in a gallery.
We’ve got plans to do more. We’ll be commissioning new portraits over the next few years. We’re thinking about what else we can do to make it a Portrait Gallery for everyone.
We’d love to hear your views. Get in touch by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org