The United States is the most dangerous industrialized country to give birth. According to the CDC, Black mothers in the U.S. die at three to four times the rate of white mothers, one of the widest of all racial disparities in women’s health. Racial disparity in the healthcare system is staggering, as there’s been a long history of racism in medicine. How do we combat and bring awareness to these racist practices? By creating community and space for folks to feel seen, through art and advocacy.
This is why artist like Herrana Addisu are so important. Herrana created her production company, Chucha Studios, as a response to the murder of George Floyd and numerous protests on racial injustices back in 2020. She noticed the need for connection and advocacy in art and visually storytelling, and made it her mission to take back the narrative in the name of social justice, all while honoring her late mother, Chucha.
The newest project to come from her agency, A Mother’s Letter, is a photography series aimed to bring visibility to the experiences of Black mothers. Starring 29 year old Sophia Said, A Mother’s Letter tells the story of “a young Black woman’s journey with pregnancy as she reflects on her choice to become a mother, and the experiences that followed, through photography and a personal letter she wrote to herself” .
Herrana and I chatted about advocacy, solitary with birthing bodies, and creating safe spaces, while on Zoom in our bonnets (because Black women deserve to just BE.)
Tremeika Small: Let’s dive right in: what systematic change are you hoping to bring with A Mother’s Letter?
Herrana Addisu: Well, one of the main reasons why I wanted to create this platform and production company is to break down the barriers of accessibility when it comes to advocacy. In my professional career and educational training, I studied international law, human rights, and gender equality.
I always thought photography was a platform that’s accessible. You know, something that you can see, you can feel, it doesn’t matter if you went to Harvard or if you have your GED, people’s stories can be told with photography and visual learning.
When it comes to A Mother’s Letter, it originally came up because my really good friend, Sophia, hit me up and said, “Hey, I want you to produce my maternity shoot for me”.
So I took on that project in a personal capacity. Three, four days after she reached out to me, Roe vs Wade was overturned.
I wanted to create safe and beautiful spaces to tell our stories that can be healing. In A Mother’s Letter, she [Sophia] talks about how she was pregnant when she was 23 and [how] she felt like she was not ready. And now, she’s about to turn 30, and feels ready and in her best space. I wanted to showcase the duality of her decisions. You could be ready now and [even if] you weren’t ready before, you could change your mind whenever you want. But the fact that she had autonomy over her body….I know so many women can relate to it.
TS: What inspired you to start Chucha Studios?
HA: Hmm, this is a tricky one, because I feel like there’s so many elements; [I feel] like I worked my whole life to get to this exact point.
I often tell the same story that what inspired me was the fact that the pandemic hit. When George Floyd was murdered and everybody was in lockdown, I was exhausted, yet I still wanted to serve my community, but showing up in that capacity started to be really taxing.
I started working on this short project, (which I still am working on), on Black happiness [showcasing] elders in my neighborhood. They taught me how to practice kindness to myself, and it was really healing to me. Over time, I wanted to connect with different folks and tell their stories; stories that have to do with things in our community that are actually happening.That was my biggest inspiration.
I want to take back the narrative. Overall, this is a healing space. I named Chucha Studios after my mom who was my biggest inspiration and my best friend. Unfortunately she passed away when I was 12. She’s been my biggest motivator.
My mom was everything, and she pushed me to do everything. She always used to tell me, “you’re teachable”. That’s one thing that’s always stuck with me, even when I got imposter syndrome. “You’re teachable. Don’t ever forget that. You’re a survivor. You’re not a victim.” At those times, I didn’t grasp what she was trying to tell me. But as I’ve gotten older, it’s something that I carry, and I wanted something that could carry her legacy and can also heal spaces.
And it’s just been really beautiful to hear, even you interviewing me, say her name. When I see my work and see her name pop up…..she’s really the embodiment of it.
Before I ask this next question, I share with Herrana that my mom also passed, and disclose that though losing our moms isn’t easy, we both found ways to align with our purpose and create community given the tragedy we both endured.
TS: A big part of the purpose of Chucha Studios is creating community which entails making people feel seen and making their voices be heard. How did you assemble your team to bring this shoot to life?
HA First I just wanna thank you for being so open with me and I’m so sorry for your loss. I know it’s not easy. Thank you for creating that safe space.
In regards to my team: Sarah [Maria] and I met a couple of months ago, [at the] beginning of this year. At that time I was starting Welcome Home. We started working together and she’s been my right hand in this and has been super supportive.
[In regards to] the photographers I’ve worked with, I met them in a personal capacity. Everybody that’s been on the project I’ve known or I’ve felt their energy and knew that working with them was gonna be good.
As a production company, as someone curating something, you’re responsible for the space that you occupy and that you’re creating. I feel very grateful for the team and community that was built around Chucha Studios; how intentional everybody has been in creating something beautiful for our community, and seeing those artists step into that advocacy world, while still doing what they love.
TS: What do you hope people take away from A Mother’s Letter?
HA: I want people to know that you are autonomous over your choices. That’s one thing that I loved about Sophia’s letter. She, at the end, writes a couple of paragraphs about motherhood and a letter to the individuals who are currently going through pregnancy or wanting to have motherhood and says, “This is your journey. People are always gonna tell you what to do. People are always gonna say, ‘you’re not ready to have a kid’, or ‘you should be having a kid now’, or ‘you shouldn’t be doing this as a pregnant person, you should be doing that.’”
Even as a parent, there’s gonna be a lot of judgment about how you should go about things, especially for Black women.
We’re constantly being told what to do and being judged. She [Sophia] said “you have to shove all that noise out and do you”. Control the narrative over your own story. No matter what the circumstances are, you need to say, “this is what I want. This is my journey, and nobody can dictate it”.
Herrana then shares with me when she took horseback riding classes in Ethiopia and a saying her mom would tell her referring to the horses “shutters”, or narrow depth of field
My mom used to say, “make sure you have your shutters on in life”, because when you start looking at other people’s lives, you’ll start forgetting your own path because you’re too busy looking at everything else, and you’ll get scared.
You’re freaking out, kinda like horses do [when they start looking around]. That’s why they have their blinders. So they can focus on their own journey.
You can make your own choices. [Create] the narrative over your own story and make sure you have your shutters on. Keep going forward. Because more than anything, when you look around, you get scared by your own strength, and then try to make yourself seem similar to everybody else.
You don’t even realize that that’s holding you back.
TS: So what’s next for Chucha Studios?
Herrana: I’m working on a couple of photography series, one is on Black homeowners. I’m really looking forward to doing more photography series. I’ve been working on a lot of projects and connecting with my community members.
I hope I can work mostly with Black owned brands and Black creatives here in New York [whilst] merging my advocacy. Again, our next project that’s coming up is going to be on Black home ownership that I hope to release in the Fall.
A Mother’s Letter
Model Sophia Said wears Naeem Khan, Jennifer Fisher, No Sesso, Brother Vellies, Home By Areeayl, along with vintage and traditional pieces.
Talent: Sophia Said
Creative Director and Executive Producer: Herrana Addisu
Producer: Sarah Maria
Production Assistant Mia Aba
Photographer: Steven Hawkins
Photographer Assitant: Yussef Almalabeh
Copy Editor: Mona Gaballa
Set Designs, Graphic and AD: Nikita Freyermuth
Stylist: Ryan C Gale
Henna Art: Natalia Zamparini
DP/Second Photographer: Christopher Zapata
Herrana Addisu’s Photos:
Photographer: Jordan Blake
Creative and Stylist: Herrana Addisu
MUA: Melissa Drouillard
Designer: Kuai Li