Skip to main content

Words Maria Giorgia Lenzi

Photography Denise Felkin


Sponsored by MPB

Dad's Not the Word

I interviewed photographer Denise Felkin on her project Dad’s Not the Word, following on from her previous series Mum’s Not the Word. Discussing her body of work, we explored what it means to be childfree and childless today, the challenges and prejudices involved, the gender differences, and the environmental reasons behind this choice.

I was wondering if you could share your reasons behind the projects and how the idea of exploring the theme of childless and childfree women and men became an interest for you?

I believe that photography and our ways of seeing contribute to our ways of thinking, doing and caring. Population growth and the impact on the environment, sustainability and well-being of future generations greatly interests me, and my photography centres around humanitarian stories that promote compassion, equality, diversity and inclusion.

I am childfree and currently exploring the theme of childless and childfree women and men. As the youngest of four sisters born into what became a single-parent family, I observed my widowed mother raising us on her own and realised from a very early age that I did not want to experience the life of a parent when I grew up. When I was 19 I spoke to my mother about this for the first time and she dismissed it, telling me I would feel differently when I was older; I never did.

While I was studying my Masters in Photojournalism, I realised that several of the participants from my photo stories on homelessness and mental health were connected because they shared the state of childlessness as a position of choice. Around the same time, The Guardian published articles on childfree celebrities Tracey Emin and Helen Mirren talking openly about not being mothers. I was very interested in what they had to say because I felt the same way yet had never come across people publicly speaking out about not wanting to raise a family in such a confirming way. I began Mum’s Not the Word two years later when I was peri-menopausal and childbearing was no longer an option.

In your projects you photographed different genders with the same concept in mind. Was that challenging for you in any way or have you found any differences in the process?

The challenging aspect with both groups was finding people to photograph. I make projects where everybody has an opinion, but to find female, male and non-binary people and to get them to agree to be photographed nude is my biggest obstacle. Some people wanted me to change my concept and be clothed, but that is not my visual perspective.

When I photograph men without children there is a visual difference beyond them lying in the foetal position in the opposite direction to that which the women lay. In the images I have created so far, the duvet covers that the men lie on are harsher in design and the men do not carry the softness of the skin that the women do. Having photographed 50 women including myself, I find it is much easier to photograph a man because they are less self-conscious. With women I’d allow two hours whereas with the men it is usually over in less than half an hour.

The process of finding participants is a bit like dating – a few men have expressed an interest and then ghosted me. Men and women are pretty much the same in terms of keeping appointments and they are often equally nervous about being photographed in the nude. I shoot from my studio in Brighton. Some people have travelled from around the UK to be part of my series. I found a connection as soon as I met most of the participants because we had something huge in common. I was offering a safe space for them to be represented in a society that ignores and stigmatises them. One female got up after the shoot and said that she felt empowered.

Mum's Not The Word ©Denise Felkin

Society seems to perceive and treat motherhood and fatherhood differently. To not be a mother can implicate taboos related to fertility and questions on the role of women; it seems that childless and childfree women undergo social prejudice whereas most of the men in your project claim they don’t experience any – and one even added ‘quite the opposite’. What do you think about this?

There are different categories of women without children. The childless woman who wants children, the childfree people who choose not to have children, and the childless by circumstance – those that have been in situations out of their control. For example, people might not have met the right partner, their partner may be infertile, they might have been in an abusive relationship or the decision may be affected by health or disability. The list is endless. With men it is the same; they want, don’t want or can’t have children.

However, men can have children at a much later age and they do not always get to decide on whether they have a child. They could also have a child unknown to themselves or their partner. A man can more easily step away from a child’s life than a woman and he can’t procreate without the involvement of a woman or a surrogate. A man does not receive the same prejudice towards his childless, childfree status in the family, socially or in workplace. It is acceptable to be a bachelor but looked down on to be spinster. A man is not ‘left on the shelf’. Most of the men I spoke with said if they fathered a child, they would be happy or accepting.

It could be argued that if being childless is generally a more delicate and discussed topic for women, usually they share a sense of empathy and can find a community around the subject. Perhaps, it could be harder for men to find a similar support network or equal sensitivity to their childless condition. Could you share if you encountered any reflections on this among the men you photographed?

When photographing women I often would not approach the topic because of its sensitive nature. When talking with the childless I have to be very careful on how I communicate. Something might be going on internally, for example they might be grieving the child they never had. One cannot assume how people might react to this subject emotionally. I need to be sensitive to vulnerabilities.

I am still in the early stages of Dad’s not the word having only photographed ten men and each person I photograph brings something new to the project. I’m currently taking bookings for shoots. A friend recently introduced me to some new male participants. I asked one, Chris, his opinion on participating and he said he felt guilt, peer pressured, shame and embarrassment.

In 2019, I attended the Fertility Festival – Living Without Children event, at The Barbican in London. A few men stood up and talked about their experience of not having children. The speakers spoke with sorrow about their individual experiences of not being able to have children. One of the speakers, Rod, spoke about the trauma that IVF caused him and his wife, explaining that there was a support network for his wife but not for him. In order to open up a dialogue for men to talk openly about their personal experiences Rod wrote a play on the issue.

A man called Roger said that in the 1970s there was nothing in place for a gay man to even think about fathering a child. I have heard gay people, especially women, say that they did not know there was a choice.

Mum's Not The Word ©Denise Felkin
©Denise Felkin
©Denise Felkin

Do you think the two projects you created are perceived or received differently?

This is its first publication outside of my own network. In the Brighton Photo Fringe 2020, I exhibited 50 female images in linear format and four men on an adjacent wall. People seemed to engage with the individual female stories but the male versions attracted less interest overall. During a recent open studio event I embedded the male images into a wall sized composite of Mum’s Not the Word which blended in. I think that once I have completed photographing 50 men and exhibit both projects together it will have a different impact.

In both your projects you photographed people on their bedsheets in the foetal position. One story in the Dad’s not the word zine refers to the foetal position being the pose one man found himself in when crying on the floor during a breakdown caused by the pain of being childless. This made me reflect on how this position can assume multiple meanings, recalling a certain innocence and purity but also being evocative of how we can curl up when lonely and in pain. Could you tell us something about this idea you thought of for the subjects?

I researched into how I would represent the unborn child. Whilst trying to figure this out I recalled the foetus image from my degree show. The final image had to be one that was easily recognisable as a visual representation of the unborn child. In a single image I wanted to link the passage of time relating to the cycle of life, menopause and unborn babies. I settled on the image of a nude figure lying on their own duvet cover on a mattress in a foetal position with their eyes closed. When we look at this type of image we both feel and see it, and by using the foetus form it anchors that feeling to the solar plexus.

The work was inspired by the foetus in Frida Kahlo’s paintings, Tracey Emin’s unmade bed, and Pre-Raphaelite cherubs. After a trip to Paris’s museums, staring at Rodin’s The Thinker confirmed that in the male series I would position the men in the opposite direction. I wanted the women to represent cycles of the moon and birth, life and death. I figured that the men would represent the Earth and stars. Look at Iain’s duvet, my first male participant, and notice the connection. Robert’s and Malcolm’s duvet patterns connect to this vision too.

Also considering the visual consistency, I was wondering what your process was when creating the images?

Placing the subject on a mattress on the floor, I use two lighting stands and a horizontal bar with my Canon 5D iii camera (35mm lens), connected to my computer. Using shower curtains as a diffuser in front of the window and bookshelves, I shoot from above and use reflectors and mirrors to paint in additional light. I look at the computer screen concentrating on bringing all the elements together to complete my final picture, walking around the mattress while the camera is on a timer. After getting the subject to lie on the mattress in the foetal position and in a way they feel comfortable I slowly fix all the issues with hair, feet, hands and crumpling of the duvet cover to make it look like a womb. I treat it like a life drawing exercise until I get what I want. My process repeats until I believe I have created the best possible image. I ask the participant to help me choose the final selection. If they have not done so already, I ask them to write words on why they do not have children. We sign an agreement and then I share the image via digital or print for their personal use.

©Denise Felkin

Some of the subjects in the project mention environmentalism and the crisis we are experiencing in the world due to overpopulation as the main reason for being childfree. In your podcast, one woman argues that when it comes to something like reproduction it is difficult for most people to think in terms of sustainability. What is your view on this?

One of the things that really gets under my skin is the state of the world today and humans’ impact on this. In my new series Unbirth of Venus, I explore what it is to be childfree as a consequence of climate change and resulting dystopian landscapes. I brood about the homeless, refugees, displaced people, and what the world will be like for future generations. I can honestly put my hand on my heart and declare that I am glad I am not rearing a child in today’s society. The cost of living is drastically rising and more people are falling into poverty. With food shortages, climate change and corporate greed, the future looks very bleak. Something must be done and voluntarily reducing the population is a solution. I have nothing against people who have children – that is their choice. However, I firmly believe that people that do not have children contribute to a greener and more sustainable future.

There are young birth strikers out there who declare they are not giving birth until something is done about the environment. At the other end of the scale people are heartbroken about not having children. This is where there is a childless/childfree culture clash. These two groups of people do not always integrate. The childless are grieving the child they never had whilst the childfree are more relaxed and empowered. Some procreators congratulate the childless for their light global footprint while others call the childfree selfish or baby haters.

©Denise Felkin
©Denise Felkin

Could you share any thoughts on what you’d like to explore next in your photography?

Since the Loupe publication on the male perspective of being childfree, I’ve revised how to be more sustainable in my practice, and made small changes to the way I produce work. This year I created two new projects, Darkside of the Womb, a campaign image to represent inclusivity in the workplace for people without families.  The second, is a 24 page handmade zine, 0void – The Art of not having Kids. 0void narrates how the universe began from the Big Bang .

In my next project, I intend to trace my origin through DNA and recreate stories told by maternal grandmother when I was a child about ancestral connections, and heritage.  I will expose hidden family history through new research that has emerged. I want to elaborate on some concepts touched on in 0void. For example, who we are and where we come from, up against my agnostic viewpoint of religion.

Maria Girogia Lenzi

Maria Giorgia Lenzi is a photographer and writer based in Bologna. After studying documentary photography, her practice is now mostly inspired by poetry through an intimate and diaristic approach.

Denise Felkin

Denise Felkin currently documents the childless/ childfree movement. Mum’s Not the Word has featured in a number of publications and awards including iPaper, The Guardian, Sony World Photography, National Open Art and Julia Margaret Cameron Awards.
Denise studied photography within a Fine Art / Photojournalism context.

Sponsored by MPB

MPB transforms the way that people buy, sell and trade in photo and video kit. An online platform for used photography and videography equipment, MPB is a destination for everyone, whether you've just discovered your passion for visual storytelling or you’re already a pro.

MPB has always been committed to making kit more accessible and affordable, and helping to visualize a more sustainable future. We recirculate more than 350,000 items of used kit every year.


Sustainability permeates every aspect of our lives and is now a necessity, not a choice. Human innovation, determination and persistence is more important than ever and will ultimately decide the fate of our planet. In this issue, through photography and writing we explore insect-based protein, space colonisation, childfree people, the importance of payphones, the world’s largest blanket bog, support for artists, sustainable photobooks and Universal Basic Income.

Only £7

Keep up with the conversation

Subscribe to your newsletter to keep up to date with all things Loupe