The last time I saw Gemma was eight years ago and before that, a further ten years. Today was about a rediscovery, joining the dots between these points.
Gemma and I had been to school together and stayed in touch since, swapping Alan Partridge quotes every few months or being way too over-excited on Facebook when the new films or series were released.
Recently, I’d posted on Insta and asked for models and she stepped forward.A few weeks later we found ourselves in a quiet little café in Manningtree, sheltering from the rain and getting reacquainted. We sat at a small table by the window overlooking an old wooden building being battered by the wind; the café was small, aged and perfect. Full of mismatched chairs, wobbly tables and earthy staff that beamed with nostalgic English warmth.
After the cursory discussion about travel and the weather, I asked how life was since I’d seen her. I tell her I want to present a true version of her today so ask for a raw account; Gemma was now married and mother to two children; “Life has ups and has downs. Right now, it’s tough.”
“Being a mother is hard. It’s a struggle to have your own identity when you always have someone clambering over you or attached to you. They barely sleep and it’s exhausting, they take all time and all energy.”
As her story unfolds, I’m disheartened to learn Gemma not only endured Post-Natal Depression but Post Traumatic Stress Disorder from the birth of her youngest; “I’ve found things really difficult and today is a respite, a chance to show another part of me.”
I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t nervous. I’m experienced at working with people in difficult situations, but it’d be foolhardy to not feel the pressure of giving someone a positive experience during a tough period. We all heal in different ways and it felt like today was important, a chance for Gemma to breathe and surface sides she didn’t often see in daily life.
As we navigated our way across the Suffolk countryside, it was clear the weather wasn't going to play ball as the wind and rain lashed the windscreen. We took shelter indoors and made a brew, creating some alternative plans and starting by using the light coming through the windows to get some soft interior shots, moving around and exploring new positions and outfits.
The rain lets up a little and we decide to brave it - hoping in the car and discovering the fields nearby, finding the right spot and getting some shots off; Gemma is in a t-shirt, I'm in a big winter coat with an umbrella - it's for the camera, I swear. These are my favourite of Gemma - raw, sexy, full of nature and weather. This is what I wanted to get from today, I wanted to show that hot side that you have less time to expose being a busy mother.
We continue to catch up and challenge one another throughout the shoot and I discover a new found respect for Gemma and her partner Sam. With their children having difficulties with sleep, Gemma and Sam face bouts of sleep deprivation and a level of compromise I cannot even begin to imagine; but, throughout it all, through the painful times and holding on to the parts of them, they've remained committed to being present and giving their all.
Whilst we take shelter again and break between shooting, Gemma swirls the drink in her glass and elaborates on her PTSD; "I still have flashbacks from the birth. I couldn't function for months, then I couldn't drive. It was so traumatic." I don't dig on this, it feels too sensitive. "There were points where I felt like leaving, but I didn't, and that's something." - and that, I think, is everything. There's enough pressure on us all and this ramps up a gear when you become a parent, throughout everything, Gemma is there. She's standing her ground, weathering the storm, gritting her teeth and doing what needs to be done and there's a huge amount to be said about that.
Before I close, I should assure you this shoot isn't about sadness, it's about courage and strength, to not only to go through hell and come out the other side, but to be able to talk about it in the hope it'll help others.
In this set, I present Gemma. Fierce, strong, committed and absolutely, without doubt, present.