> First Moments: A text in response to a photograph by Kerstin Hacker

Helen James / First Moments: A text in response to a photograph by Kerstin Hacker

January 2016

First Moments

I don’t need a translator to transcribe the word ‘ADOPCE’ for me. My radar tells me the word means ‘adoption’ in my language. This tiny baby is up for adoption. He has been issued with this sign to announce his newly applied status and that word will follow him deeply into his future. Our nameless little man is newly abandoned, there is no escaping that, but of course he may have a new family earmarked and is simply awaiting their arrival. The other sign above his head announces that he should be changed last, dealt with last and that brings rather more uncomfortable thoughts about his future.

Like every other newborn he is damp and exhausted form the birth process and has just left his mother’s body. He isn’t cradled in his mother’s arms or ever likely to be. He will have to wait and see who comes to collect him or where he is to be placed. At the moment he is safe and contextualized by the maternity ward and the comings and goings of parents, babies and midwifery staff. He is so close to his own real history that will gradually fade as his mother slips quietly away for some, no doubt, valid reason.

Kerstin Hacker found him on the maternity ward and she took a photograph of him sleeping soundly and unaware of his different future and the questions that will flood one day. By peering into one of the most intimate and defining experiences of his life we owe him an explanation for our intrusion.

At times language can alienate but visuals seem to unify life experiences. This tiny baby languishes in the aftermath of the birth experience but is carved a very different deal from the baby wanted by his birth mother. When he wakes he will cry and she won’t come. Countless passing individuals will try to take away the pain of her absence with cuddles and special attention but it won’t help and he will grow stronger and more independent because of that, hopefully.

This photograph represents the journey ahead of him. The image isn’t celebratory oozing love and warmth with mother’s hands curling and caressing. Our new little person is alone and shields himself from the world that is contemplating what to do with his arrival.

It took me 37 years to find my mother. A long search. I wasn’t helped or supported by British society. I undertook the search myself and found her in the end. She too is as bruised by the experience of leaving as I was in being left. Those searching, aching years seemed to be full of wondering and traversing the uncertain terrain of fact versus fiction. Nobody seemed sure who I was and where I came from. But the word adoption stuck; it sparked romantic intrigue at school, muffled silence in adulthood, interesting conversations down the pub and, most irritatingly, quiet indifference from the medical profession. The word adopted was slashed across my birth certificate, medical records and any official document that required me to be labeled so. I was strangely different and stripped of an entire history that I increasingly longed to know.

Perhaps he won’t search and won’t want to know or frame the difficult questions that won’t or can’t be answered. Perhaps. Maybe all the families that crowd the maternity unit with their chitter chatter will silence his need to belong and he will be content with what comes his way. Families eh? They all have their secrets after all. Perhaps the folk that walk through the door to collect him will cloud his need to know more about those genetic roots. But I suspect not.

This photograph describes the most precious moment when he experienced being alone for the first time and in it he finds some peace through deep sleep. He is cradled within the clinical environment of the maternity ward and cocooned in a white metal cot. He will contemplate this moment when she left time and time again. I hope he finds this photograph but I suspect not. For those of us who are adopted it universally describes our collective first moment. It is loaded with information that we want to know about how we were treated when first left alone. This intrusion was worth it.

For many an adopted person such a photograph could be unique viewing. It is a first in the ‘family’ album (the life story album) and depicts the absence of familial traces, in this story at least. It is a moment that will be thought about in the years to come. For some of us adoption was a wrenching away from what we should know intimately and a catapult into an unknown, unsure world that can take many decades to understand. It is a status that took away the comfort of knowing and shoveled heaps of uncertainty about who we think we are, based on who we thought we were.

Stories ebb and flow in the world of the unwanted: some good, some bad. And there is much uncertainty and many, many questions. The only certainty in adoption is where you come from and not where you are going. This photograph captures a fleeting certainty about a history that will soon slip away and catches that moment perfectly.


Text by Helen James – Writer and Photography Historian

Image by Kerstin Hacker – Photojournalist and Head of Photography at Cambridge School of Art, Anglia Ruskin University