The beauty of breastfeeding


Saturday, August 2
BRATTLEBORO -- Rachel Portesi has nursed her son Emmett at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and in many other public places, so it was ironic when she felt uncomfortable doing it at a family gathering in her own home.

"We had a 'Welcome to Emmett' party, and it was brought up as a concern by my parents," said Portesi.

Her experience has within it much of the current state of breastfeeding awareness -- there's widespread acceptance but still progress to be made.

For the fifth year, an art exhibit in Brattleboro highlights breastfeeding as an issue and as a beautiful experience. "The Art of Breastfeeding" show opened Friday, in conjunction with World Breastfeeding Week (Aug. 1-7) and runs through the month at Amy's Bakery Arts Café, 113 Main St.

Portesi is one of three local photographers whose work on the subject of breastfeeding will be featured. Elizabeth Ungerleider and Sarah Lavigne are the others.

"I look at this photo exhibit as a celebration of a community's acceptance of breastfeeding, rather than (for) breastfeeding awareness," said Portesi.

In truth, there is much to celebrate. In a June report, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cited Vermont hospitals as having the best breastfeeding practices in the country, tied with New Hampshire.

In our own tolerant community, acceptance of breastfeeding is less of an issue than it is in other parts of the country. And the images in the show reflect that. To be sure, there are images that capture breastfeeding in all its beauty and intimacy.

"I just loved breastfeeding. I'm kind of missing it," said Ungerleider. "I loved the idea of promoting breastfeeding. There's nothing better for a child. I loved the idea of helping people get comfortable with it."

The show has evolved in its five years, to embrace a deeper appreciation than just getting comfortable.

Lavigne's work has been featured in most of the previous "Art of Breastfeeding" shows, and this year she responded to some of the feedback she heard.

"People are usually very supportive of me, and they've been saying, 'Where are the dads?' Lavigne said. "A lot of the breastfeeding photographs I've done have been portraits. This year, I was really trying to incorporate the family ... to put it in context. ... I've always been interested in making note of the little moments that make up the day."

Images in this show not only capture breastfeeding in a special light, they also consciously pull it down off the pedestal and into everyday life.

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Portesi's photographs do that, too. Hers are self-portraits of her own breastfeeding experience, taking with a little hand-held digital camera. They are images which place nursing a baby into the context of the life of a busy mother.

"I realized I was doing some crazy things while breastfeeding, like vacuuming," she said. "There's this image of breastfeeding that it's this taboo subject, and other people are capturing this beautiful moment. I'm taking photographs (where) this isn't beautiful. ... It's part of life."

But don't misunderstand her. She cherishes the experience.

"I feel really privileged to breastfeed," she said, cognizant that other women can't, don't have the opportunity to, or the support.

And that's part of the exhibit's mission. To remind people in our supportive community that we may be the exception, not the rule.

"In a fairly progressive community such as Brattleboro, it is easy to be complacent in the pursuit of breastfeeding. Yet, in the increasingly polarized country in which we live, the prevailing winds of conservatism threaten to tamper with a woman's right to breastfeed. In some states, it is still a criminal offense to nurse a child in public," said curator Catherine Dianich Gruver.

The exhibit is in collaboration with the Brattleboro Area Breastfeeding Coalition, sponsored by the Vermont Department of Health, Brattleboro Memorial Hospital and the Arts Council of Windham County.

Continuing to build on a piece that was new last year, called "The Brattleboro Breastfeeding Oral History Project," there will be a series of interviews of recent new mothers, other women nursing older babies and "retired" nursing mothers conducted by Dawn M. Kersula and Allegra Carignan. Kersula has had many years of experience as a lactation specialist at Brattleboro Memorial Hospital. Carignan has a background in both women's studies and oral history, and is the mother of two daughters.

For information on the show at Amy's, contact Dianich Gruver at 802-254-9076; anyone interested in participating in this oral history project should contact Kersula at 802-463-3849.

About the photographers:

Elizabeth Ungerleider has been taking photographs since she received her first camera, a Kodak Instamatic, at age 10. She soon graduated to 35mm and medium-format cameras and eventually took the leap into the digital world. Her work consists primarily of documentary subjects and portraiture. Her photographs have appeared in the Washington Post, New York Newsday and the Oakland Tribune.

Sarah R. Lavigne is a local wedding and portrait photographer and does documentary and created reality photos for her personal work. She is most interested in human emotion, expression and relations. Most of Lavigne's work focuses on women and children, domestic life and created reality.

Rachel Portesi graduated Marlboro College (where she and Lavigne worked together) with honors in 1998. Since then she has made and exhibited photographs in Vermont and Brooklyn, managed restaurants in New York City, worked as a photojournalist for the Rutland Herald and Brattleboro Reformer, taught at the Kindle Farm School and at In-Sight Photography, where she was also program director. More recently she has and has worked on two independent films and a television special. She moved back to Vermont in 2006 and lives in Saxtons River with her family.


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