The Baby Whisperer: Anne Geddes on International Fame and Regional Work
Previously published in The National.
With cherubic rosy cheeks and smiling blue eyes, 6-month-old baby Jai sits in the soft centre of a giant flower. She is wearing a fluffy yellow and black striped outfit, complete with wings.
The picture, taken in 2012 in Sydney, Australia, is one of hundreds of memorable images taken by Anne Geddes – a world famous baby photographer – and fills the back cover of her newest book.
Small World, a Taschen publication, is a giant tome where all of Geddes’ most iconic images are collected. The subjects are almost always babies, although there are some of young children and pregnant women, and the style is usually whimsical and fantastical.
As well as the bumblebee baby, there is 3-week-old Angelina, who is wearing a koala costume and is nestled in the crook of a tree. There are also seahorses, gingerbread men and a set of twins, tucked inside oyster shells.
Geddes does not consider her overwhelmingly cute subjects to be props for elaborate costumes. She is an artist and the babies in her photographs are part of a narrative.
"The babies are not dressed up like insects or animals, they are playing roles as those characters," she says. "For me, my work is all about storytelling and I am giving them a voice."
She doesn’t want her work to be seen as simply cute pictures of babies, instead she wants to humanise the little people she is capturing.
"Today, the world is a pretty troubling place, people are anxious and concerned about the future, but to have a child makes you want to make the world a better place," she muses. "Babies are not just cute little beings, they are little people. They have their own energy, sense of adventure and independence, which comes across in my images.
"The message of my work is that every baby is important in this world, and we are all responsible for all of the babies all of the time."
Geddes has been honing her craft for the past 30 years. Born in Australia, Geddes began her photographic career in Melbourne in 1987, where she opened her own portrait studio in her backyard garage, but it was a few years later in the 1990s, after she moved with her husband Kel and their two daughters Stephanie and Kelly to New Zealand, that she started to make a name for herself.
From her base in Auckland, Geddes took some of the images that became famous around the globe. In 1991, she photographed twins Grant and Rhys sitting in cabbages, with leaves on their heads and looking at each other with puzzled looks on their faces.
In 1993, she visited a neonatal intensive care unit at an Auckland hospital and photographed a baby called Maneesha. She weighed 998 grams, and to show her size, Geddes shot her being cradled in the hands of an elderly man named Jack. The image is in black and white and the tiny folds of Maneesha’s closed eyes echo with the folds in Jack’s hands, which enfold her entire tiny body.
More than 20 years on, Geddes says this is still her most important photograph. "When I shot that image, I had no notion of the power it would have over so many years. To this day, hundreds of people contact me to say they can relate to that image, and that it has given them hope," she says. "I wasn’t well-known then, I just wanted to shoot a simple image to demonstrate the fragility yet surprising strength of human beings to get through adversity."
Maneesha is just one of Geddes’ babies with whom she had kept in touch. That once tiny baby is now 23 years old and a fellow artist and photographer. She has completed a couple of internships with Geddes. "I like to think I had something to do with her career choice," laughs Geddes.
Last September, when she turned 60, Geddes decided to put a call out on social media to try to contact the babies in her images.
The response, she says, has been overwhelming and now she has a regular series on her Instagram account called "Baby look at you now" where she juxtaposes the original image with a current snap shot.
Geddes has also travelled the world with her work. Now based in New York, she spent several weeks in Doha in 2013, photographing Qatari athletes with newborn babies and young children, to promote healthy lifestyles and to bolster broader efforts to reduce diabetes in the Qatari population.
The images now hang in the main hallway at Hamad Women’s Hospital.
"Cause-related work is really important to me now," she says. "There is nothing more incredible than a newborn baby and I truly believe they are all born good and pure. My work is about their pure possibility and to inspire hope in others. I strive to make the world a better place."
• Small World is available for ordering now through Taschen and is be available in UAE bookstores, including Virgin, Kinokuniya and Magrudy’s