“Beneath this cross-barred cradle of cloth there beats the universal mother heart—universal in its high hopes for her children’s future and in its eager joy at personal sacrifice for their happiness.”
In 1917, Eliza Scidmore captured this photograph with a moving description in National Geographic. The magazine became a vehicle for illustrating our shared humanity. This mother of warriors in Japan was like as any mother in the world, willing to sacrifice anything for her children.
No surprise that Scidmore was the first woman to be a National Geographic photographer and writer. It’s clear she had a way of connecting Americans to foreign worlds. Her voice and dramatic photos were intriguing yet relatable for so many reasons beyond the subject matter.
Scidmore didn’t sugar coat or interpret what she saw. She wrote descriptive passages that revealed a people’s strength and the admiration she felt for the Japanese culture that she grew to love.
For example, it’s clear the woman in this photo is a mother first. She carries two children on her back with strength and calm. Even in the direst circumstances – should the babies ever die – their mother would never burden others by revealing her pain.
Scidmore respected this truth.
It’s one that many Americans could never understand without knowing the Japanese culture. The unsmiling face has nothing to do with happiness but instead illustrates the Japanese stoicism steeped in cultural practices and manifest in their strength and courtesy.
This was particularly relatable for Scidmore, an extremely private person who never married. Her work was her life. In exotic photos like the portrait of this Tamil girl from India, Scidmore captured a fascinating part of India’s culture.
The photo was startling in the April 1907 edition of National Geographic. The young girl is dressed like an adult and draped in heavy beaded necklaces. These show the importance of jewelry for Indian women and the fact that this young girl has already attained a significant stature in society. She would no doubt make a bountiful bride.
What I loved in these photos and writings that Scidmore produced was her insight and openness to things that she didn’t understand. It reminds us of these important traits.
In many ways, Scidmore saw what would become a movement later in India for Mahatma Gandi:
“A nation’s culture resides in the hearts and in the soul of its people.”