Iceland’s Independent Mothers Skip to content

Iceland’s Independent Mothers

An exhibit by Canadian photographer Annie Ling featuring intimate portraits of Icelandic single mothers, which opened at Mjólkurbúðin Gallery in Akureyri on June 19—on the centennial of Icelandic women’s voting rights—has gained international attention.

Last month The New Yorker featured several of the photographs in a piece about the exhibit, titled Independent Mothers, alongside an interview with Ling.

“These women aren’t getting judgment from the outside. So, because they’re accepted, they’re much more at ease in their situations,” said Ling of her subjects.

For the past few years Iceland has topped the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Rankings, leading to American periodical The Nation, among others, to proclaim it “the most feminist place in the world.” That is not to say that single motherhood in Iceland is necessarily easy.

In the words of New Yorker contributor, Professor Janet Elise Johnson, “single mothering may be less fraught in Iceland, but the women [Ling] photographed are not what we Americans would see as comfortably well off.”

While attitudes towards sexual morality might be more relaxed—as the article mentions, Iceland has the highest rate of out-of-wedlock births in the world, with two-thirds of children born to unwed mothers (the Icelandic translation of the K-I-S-S-I-N-G song never really caught on beyond the first three lines)—the country’s gender wage-gap is still among Europe’s highest, and sentencing for sex crimes has long been strikingly lax.

“This one mother I photographed had had a pretty hard day when I showed up,” Ling told Johnson. “She told me this guy she was dating had broken up with her. Her mom was in the hospital, so she was on the phone with her. She was feeding the kids, bathing them, putting them to bed, and then heating up food at the end of the night.”

“I caught that moment of exhaustion. It was kind of incredible.”

Other than a puzzling reference to “the native population,” the New Yorker article is grounded and well researched. Unlike many writers (both Icelandic and foreign), Johnson avoids the idolizing, ‘look how perfect Iceland is’ angle that ultimately makes the country out to be some sort of real-world Disneyland—but neither does she approach her subject with a pessimistic and deconstructive ‘believe nothing you’re told’ attitude.

Instead she opts for a fair and balanced look at Ling’s findings, which doesn’t so much seek a solid conclusion, but rather to open a window into the lives and experiences of women half-way across the world.

The exhibit thus far can be viewed at the photographer’s website.

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