All photos by Ying Ang

These Photos Capture the Claustrophobia of Postpartum Depression

For Ying Ang, photography was the best was to process "the mourning of my previous identity."

Postpartum depression is one of those things that’s infrequently discussed, but extremely common. In Australia, where photographer Ying Ang lives in Melbourne, one in five mothers are diagnosed with depression before their baby’s second birthday. Tragically, suicide is also the leading cause of maternal death.


When Ying Ang experienced postpartum depression, she found both the experience and the ambivalence around her utterly rattling. As throughout her professional life, she decided to process the feeling through her work, and started taking photos of her day-to-day. The result is a book titled The Quickening: a series of abstract, uncomfortable photos exploring Ying’s transition to motherhood.

We spoke to Ying as she prepared for a show at the gallery she directs: Le Space.


Photographer Ying Ang in a self portrait

VICE: Hey Ying, your child is now three years old. When you look at these photographs, can you recall how you were feeling when you took them?Ying Ang: Looking at these photographs is the only way I can recall the feeling, because the experience has receded, in the same way that people know birth is painful but you can never remember that pain. Like most pain; if you break a bone, you remember that it was painful, but your body doesn't recall the pain. So I can look back and say, "Yes, that was painful," but I cannot recall how it feels; the experience. The only way I can actually recall it is by reading my book again.


Can you tell me what motivated you to start taking photos?
The root of [all my work] is my personal life and what drives it is obsession. Obsession comes from a problem that I can’t solve, something that I can’t work out, that really upsets me, confuses me, angers me. It's the need to get on my soapbox and to yell as loud as possible.


The Quickening is about an experience that people have a lot of difficulty being honest about. The pressure to paint it in a particular way that isn’t truthful, I think, contributes enormously to postpartum depression and anxiety.

Women still feel guilty for feeling like they're struggling in their first year of motherhood. They feel like they need to present this front where they're looking fabulous—like at the birthing table, full face of makeup, everyone's looking really sleek. All that means is that it’s very difficult for women to find support in a time that so many people go through.


Was that lack of conversation something that bothered you before experiencing postpartum depression yourself?
No, I had plenty of friends that got pregnant and had kids and nobody ever mentioned experiencing anything like that to me. So it really hit me hard and was a real shock to the system because it was a completely opaque experience. It’s so overlooked in the arts too. Literature is probably the only art form that has made any headway in exploring the subject matter, but for the most part, there's really nothing out there.

The dangerous part about this is not that women are then blindsided, but once that does happen, the people around them also don't understand and don’t know how to support you through it. So what is already an uphill struggle becomes even more taxing. I'm in a hetero-normative relationship with someone who is liberal, left leaning. He comes from a demographic of people that are amenable to the female experience, but even then, him and his cohort had a lot of trouble understanding and supporting their female partners through this experience. And that made it extremely difficult.


So you must have experienced a pretty significant perspective shift living through this?
It was a massive perspective shift, and one that was so encompassing. If your understanding of the world is multifaceted, like a cut diamond, and a shift in perspective is perhaps a change of direction on one facet of that diamond, I would say that someone picked me up, smashed me into the ground and put me together in a completely different way.

My perspective on everything has completely changed. It’s like two tectonic plates smashing together, coming together with such force that it completely rearranges the geography of the world. You literally are in a completely different land and you need to re-navigate and understand all over again: where you are, where you stand, where you belong, the way you conduct yourself. Your very identity.

I'm a completely different person now from who I was before. So with that kind of shift in identity, it's not just the challenge of working out where to go from here, but it's also a great challenge saying goodbye to who you once were. The mourning of my previous identity is something that is still ongoing. I still feel it as a grief and emptiness.


The book concludes with an account of the first solo trip you took after giving birth. What did that journey feel like? Was that kind of a turning point emotionally?
Absolutely. I remember being at the boarding gate and I remember being so anxious and so physically uncomfortable from the separation that I couldn't hear properly, I couldn't see properly, my breaths were really shallow. I was in an absolute panic state and I didn't really know how to navigate the world independently anymore after two years of being attached to a child and sort of seeing the world only through their eyes.


Once my child started walking, even when they were crawling, I was seeing and navigating the world a foot above the ground, because I needed to see what they were seeing in order to be able to anticipate danger. That’s sort of an indicator of how absorbed I was in relinquishing who I was as a person. I barely existed at that point. So being on my own for the first time, being able to reclaim myself, felt crazy because I had to cast aside what was essentially an institutionalised perspective and to try and regain my own perspective again, and I could feel it physically coming back after I boarded the plane, and with every mile that separated us, I just felt myself flooding back. But the self that comes flooding back takes a different form.

I was myself again to an extent, but I was irrevocably changed. And that trip was the first time I was able to experience, see and discover who that new self would be.


How does it feel to release a project as autobiographical as The Quickening into the world? Is it scary or is it cathartic?
I think both. It’s terrifying because I myself still live with that stigma of “will people still respect me professionally if I'm a woman making a journalistic story of becoming a mother?” Like even the way that I say that speaks volumes of how that kind of story is looked at.

But it is cathartic because matrescence [the transition to motherhood] hurts, and it's a deeply painful part of someone's life—the same way that adolescence is painful, and the same way that being a baby moving into toddlerhood is painful. It’s all kinds of things happening to your body physiologically. Socially, your life completely changes. You don't have friends anymore, you're just hanging out with your family. The structure of your brain changes, and also your identity changes. Especially if you're working in the world, and your capacity to work the way that you used to work is now non-existent. It's a big adjustment and it really hurts.


Do you have any idea what your next project might look like?
Not really. If it was about quality of life and emotional and psychological security, I suppose I would say I don't have another book in me. I’m thinking that my next project isn't going to come from such a psychological space and that I would still be able to plumb enough energy out of me to make a book out of something that I was intellectually driven by, as opposed to psychologically driven by.

There’s a lot about COVID that interests me: social change and shifts and the way that we relate to the world. And that's not something I'm particularly mad about, but it is something that I'm also interested in and fascinated by. So I started to do a little bit of research along those lines. But this is the thing: I’ve probably started 30, 50 different projects in my life and two books have come out of it. So you just don't know. You have an idea, you start and then it may yield or it may not—but you just have to do it and then see.

Interview by Matthew Forbes. Follow Ying Ang on Instagram

The Quickening will be launched in the first week of May, and will be available to purchase online and in specialised bookstores such as Kinokuniya.