Polly Braden: Holding The Baby

Arnolfini, Bristol

19 February to 12 June 2022

So the show’s already been at the Museum of the Home, London. How is the Arnolfini show different?

Polly Braden:  When the Arnolfini show opened on Saturday 19 February, there were queues to get into the space. It was jammed all day with people reading the text, kids enjoying the workshops, loads of people writing about it on instagram and emails all day the following day and since, from single parents saying how they’d been touched by the stories and how they’d resonated with them. Many of the families from the photos made it to the gallery despite the weather (the weekend of storm Eunice and subsequent heavy rain and fierce winds in Bristol). When we opened the show at the Museum of the Home in June 2021 Covid restrictions were just lifting, numbers were very limited. We could only have twelve people at the opening.

A woman and boy around 10 years of age stood on top of a low brick wall leaning against a three bar, black railing. Behind them is a river running alongside a city scape, with narrow boat in the frame. She is stylishly dressed in a long skirt and loose jacket, with fabulous pink, wedged heeled sandals. The boy is wearing a bright red t shirt, denim shorts and dark trainers. The boy has his arms around the woman in a side hug, his head down and face hidden into her dress. She looks down at him and is stroking his head.
Barbeline and Elijah, Holding the Baby 2021 by Polly Braden

How did you come up with the core question of “What would make the biggest change to single parent families”?

Polly Braden:  Four or five main themes kept coming up when we were doing our research, the cost of childcare, the problems with the CMS (child maintenance support) inflexible employers, for example. We wanted to hear what people visiting the exhibition thought would make the biggest change. One child wrote ‘a robot to make chips’ would make the biggest change.

Which particular austerity measures that have impacted on families are you highlighting?

Polly Braden:  Since 2013, families can claim Universal Credit, a payment which combined and replaced six benefits, including income support and housing benefit. But the monthly allowance is limited to two children. Brought in as an austerity measure by George Osborne, then Chancellor of the Exchequer, the rule came into force in April 2017, and was aimed at ensuring welfare spending was sustainable and fair to the taxpayer. ‘I didn’t plan to be in this situation,’ say Gemma, one of the people in the project. Because Elsie, her youngest, is deemed ineligible, ‘all the children get less… and that just seems incredibly unfair.’ 

How does this project tie into others you have done previously?
Polly Braden:  My work looks to highlight previously unheard voices. Out of the Shadows: the untold story of people with autism or learning disabilities charts the life of ten people through the criminal justice system. It was ten years after a report from the Prison Reform Trust called ’No one knows.’

What advice do you have for photographers who are interested in documentary and journalistic-style work?

Polly Braden:  Find a topic you’re interested in. Research, research. The story will carry you through.

A lounge-type room with amber curtains, a couple of paintings and tribal mask on the wall with huge spider plant on a stand. In the foreground a bespeckled woman, wearing a scarfed hairband, lies against cushions on the sofa apparently playing a game whereby she is a patient being administered medicine into her mouth, via syringe, by her young girl who sits slightly over her. Both have painted red stripes on their faces.
Carike with Seren, Holding the Baby 2021 by Polly Braden

How do you find navigating between photojournalism and fine art photography?

Polly Braden:  That’s a tricky question. I do feel between things most of the time. For the latest version of Holding the Baby at the Museum of the Home we paired it right back to its simplest form. There is still a lot of information and it was interesting to watch people engaging with quite short quotes from the people in the pictures and yet gather so much from them.

Why do you feel that photography is the best medium for you to tackle this subject?

Polly Braden:  I’m always thinking about this. Would it be better as a documentary film? Can photography tell complex stories? Each of the families we choose tells a different part to this story; Gemma has three children so we could talk about the two child limit, Jana fled an abusive marriage with her two small children but has managed now to get into Imperial College, London to study Materials Science and Engineering. They are each inspiring and with very few words to accompany the photographs we were able to say a lot because so much of parenting is relatable. One of Gemma’s quotes is: ‘From 5pm to 8pm it’s all about getting ready for bed. I have to sing the same songs every night in the same order: London Bridge is Falling Down, Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, Baa Baa Black Sheep, Silent Night. I sometimes try and skip some of the verses, but they always notice.’ 

How did you organise the collaboration between yourself and the families, especially during the lockdown?

Polly Braden:  I carried on working with three of the families, who were based nearest to me, during lockdown and as it began to open up. We made some images outside and I set the camera and lights inside and let people take self-portraits. We discussed the framing and sort of feel to the pictures then I left them to it so we wouldn’t be in the same room together. It was interesting to see how free people became when I was out of the room.

Polly Braden: Holding The Baby continues at Arnolfini, Bristol until 12 June 2022. 
Arnolfini, 16 Narrow Quay, Bristol BS1 4QA  
Open Tuesday to Sunday, 11am to 6pm. Entry is free of charge.

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