Tale of Two Porches

Yes, the words were written “by Alex Kuczynski” (it says so in black just beside the title of the New York Times Magazine cover story, “Her Body, My Baby”) but judging by many of the hundreds of comments on the story posted on the Times web site, it’s the accompanying photos that really tell (frame? overtake?) the story.

Take the cover shot (by Olaf Blecker). Pregnant woman in wrinkled khakis with sensible shoes and hair, and exhausted eyes: gestational surrogate mother. Svelte woman in sleeveless black shift dress, heels, with flawless up-do and no under-eye circles whatsoever: New York Times writer and “I.P.” or “intended parent” and biological mother of the aforementioned (or, at least aforesuggested) fetus.

And then there are the two pictures inside (by Gillian Laub). Photo one, captioned: “Every Day Is Mother’s Day. The author, her son, Max Dudley Stevenson, and her baby nurse, Margo Clements, at home in Southampton, N.Y. in July.” And, photo two, captioned: “Almost Baked: Cathy Hilling at home in Harleysville, Pa., about a week before giving birth to the author’s baby.” Here is how one Times reader described the images:

The surrogate mother is shown on a downscale porch, slouching, barefoot and pregnant. The author is shown, standing erect, well-dressed, with her new surrogate baby in front of an upscale porch, with a female attendant of color standing obediently by.

So, do the photos and the piece tell the same story? Or, are the photos somehow leading in a way that distorts or overwhelms something of (a humanity in?) the accompanying article. As one commenter put it:

I was prepared to roll my eyes at this story because of the photos, particularly the one of the author with her baby’s nurse.

To the contrary, I found the article to be an extremely open, gutsy exploration of the author’s experience and her conflicting - and sometimes unflattering - thoughts and feelings…It takes a brave person to tell a story like this and open herself up to commentary and criticism.

The photos, however, are unfortunate. Regardless of their quality, the pictures set up an immediate and unpleasant contrast of race, class and privilege between the author and her surrogate.

And yet the photos don’t “set up” these contrasts, which exist with or without the images, as much as “capture” them. And make them The Story. (What if the Times had placed on the cover, or even alongside the article’s text rather than tucked away on the Table of Contents page, the photo— sorry, can’t find it online to link to it — of Kuczynski holding her infant son on her knee, gazing down at the completely bald baby boy with the pudgy arms and bright blue eyes? More sympathetic. More widely relatable.)

Another vote for the photos being “unfortunate,” but in another way (from another web commenter):

The pictures were really unfortunate. As soon as I saw them I lost all sympathy for this manipulative writer.

The only positive thing I can say for this article is that the gestational woman looks alive and full of life, the other looks like a dried up professional.

Also “unfortunate,” of course, is the timing of this cover, with this first-person story by this New York Times style reporter, arriving as it did on a weekend when the news on everyone’s minds was coming from a place well beyond the New York Times’s own newsroom.

UPDATE: Cathy, the gestational mother, has a comment on the Times web site (how can we be sure it’s the real Cathy? I suppose we can’t. But the Times has highlighted the comment as an “editor’s selection,” which lends it authenticity points). Anyway, “Cathy,” too, calls the photos “unfortunate” and sheds some light on what readers are and are not shown:

The pictures chosen for the story are unfortunate. However, it is the working of the NYT Mag to stimulate comments, and it has worked. As one person wrote: If the surrogate had known the photographer was coming, wouldn’t she have cleaned up the porch and put on shoes? The answer is “yes.” But I didn’t know she was coming to my house that day. And the photographer had me take off my shoes. There were lots of photos taken in my beautiful yard, along the creek, in the hammock. But those photos would not have gotten a rise out of readers. And the subjects of the story did not have a say in which photos were used. It was an editor’s choice.

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Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.