Photographers, either intentionally or unwittingly, often find themselves in the role of the ethnographer. That was certainly the case with Rebecca Martinez, a San Francisco photographer who has spent the past several years capturing the Reborn community, a group of women who create amazingly lifelike infant dolls. “People can be incredibly judgemental of them,” Martinez tells me. “I’m often nervous about receiving publicity, because it’s very easy to see it as weird.”
Indeed. The Reborn community is often seen as taboo. As the New York Times Lens Blog noted last week, its members build dolls that are almost grotesquely real, and often treat the dolls as true human beings. The dolls, which go for hundreds of dollars online, are weighted to feel like real infants and often trick bystanders who assume they’re the genuine article. Martinez happened upon the subculture while shopping online for a project about mannequins. She bought her first doll on a whim, and quickly found herself attending Reborn conventions and getting to know other members of the community—some of whom have let her photograph them for her series, PreTenders. “It’s been a few years, and I still feel like I’m not one of them,” she says, perhaps because of the strong emotional bonds many women share with their dolls. She explains:
Many of the women involved have an especially strong passion for the stage of mothering babies and this is a method to keep this stage permanently in their lives. There is a wide range of personal stories and motivations for being involved in this community. Some create or collect these dolls because they cannot continue to give birth to living babies, or have lost a child, or cannot have one of their own. Some women admire the art form and are doll collectors, others create nurseries in their homes and integrate the babies as part of their families and lives.
Some of Martinez’s photographs capture Reborn members and their collections, but others document social experiments in which she puts her own dolls in unlikely public places, introducing them to unwitting strangers. In one image, she puts a doll in a carry-on compartment. She’s fascinated by the strong emotions these dolls illicit, even in the most cynical of bystanders. “It doesn’t seem to matter that the babies aren’t real,” she says. “Even if I tell people it’s not real, they still find it hard to be neutral. Your body responds and you find yourself rocking the baby, kissing the baby.” Sometimes people are embarrassed at their own reactions—other times, they’re repulsed by the experience.
According to Martinez, the Reborn dolls reflect fundamental aspects of human behavior, magnifying feelings that range from shame and disgust to protectiveness and love. “I think it’s very revealing that people respond so strongly when they touch the dolls,” Martinez says. “These are absolutely the most powerful objects I’ve ever worked with.”
Martinez has plans to eventually make PreTenders into a book, but for now, the series will go on view at Redline art space in Denver on March 8.
[H/t Lens Blog]