When Polly Borland was first told about the secret world of adult babies, her immediate reaction was to dismiss it as a fabrication. As a photographer who specialised in the offbeat, surreal and fringe, the idea – that there were secret clubs all over the world, in which adult men spent weeks looking and living like babies – was just a bit too unfathomable for the pre-reality TV era of the early 90s. “I was like, ‘no, don’t be ridiculous,’” she remembers, chuckling. “That just can’t be true.”
However, she quickly learned she was wrong. After a little bit of digging, Borland soon found herself introduced to the Hush-a-Bye-Baby Club in Gillingham, Kent, a place where fully grown men would check in to revel in various states of infantile regression. Much like your conventional tots, the Hush-a-Byes would spend their time crawling on the floor, wearing (and using) nappies, sleeping in cots and, on occasions, suckling from the teat of a ‘mother’. Armed with her camera, Borland spent a day capturing the strange, unsightly theatre unfolding in Britain’s South East corner, with the pictures (in which the Babies’ identities were kept hidden) quickly making their way into the public sphere via The Independent’s Saturday magazine.
“Everyone was outraged. It didn’t look as funny as the editor thought it was going to look, but he still stood by it,” she explains. “People kind of couldn’t get beyond the content. They couldn’t get beyond the creepy ugliness of it, even though the photos were quite beautiful.
“The light, the colour, they’re quite beautiful – but, they are flabby old men dressed up as babies. People find it creepy. It’s a creepiness that they can’t get their hands on, or can’t get their minds around.”
“The photos were quite beautiful... (but) they are flabby old men dressed up as babies” – Polly Borland
Despite the shock generated from their initial run in the mainstream press, Borland – as far as her relationship with this unusual, underground community was concerned – wasn’t wavered. In fact, she was quite the opposite: “I thought ‘hmm…’ I’d like to do a book on this. And I’m going to show their faces.”
The Babies was published in 2001 by powerHouse Books, featuring 80 photographs taken over a five-year stretch, a foreword from Susan Sontag and the same unflinching gaze from Borland’s lens. As opposed to the articles and ‘documentaries’ that might have introduced contemporary audiences to the phenomenon, Borland’s images transcend any kind of ulterior narrative or judgement.
“I kind of describe myself as a humanist – and a modernist. Within that, there’s almost a political element. For me, I think this is what’s happened now today, is that people are focused on differences, when – and this sounds a bit hippy of me but I’m not a hippy – if we cut ourselves, we’re all bleeding the same colour blood. It’s about tolerance and kindness and going back to sharing. For me the babies sort of encapsulate that; it’s so easy to make judgements on people through fear and ignorance – and, I guess, ego. I try not to be in the business of that.
“It wasn’t just, ‘I’m gonna go in and be non-judgemental.’ I kind of felt that I wasn’t in a position to be judgemental, cos they were giving themselves to me and trusted me completely. I kind of couldn’t be judgemental, because I don’t think I would have lasted five years if I made any kind of judgement. I didn’t wanna make a judgement. I didn’t feel like I was equipped.”
The Australian photographer cites the provocative realism of Diane Arbus and Larry Clark as inspiration and, with The Babies, their influence is clear. Much of what makes the images so uncomfortable is the way in which they challenge an acknowledgement of their strange, synchronous beauty. As Sontag notes in her introductory essay, “Close is ugly. And adult is ugly, when compared with the perfection of the recently born.” However, in Borland’s frame, there’s something – aesthetically speaking, at least – inexplicably endearing.
“It’s so easy to make judgements on people through fear and ignorance – and, I guess, ego” – Polly Borland
So, why did they do it? Borland puts it down to a fetish, inspired by some kind of alienation. But, ultimately, that isn’t really important. “Some of them were baby purists – they believed if you were a baby, it was pre-sexual, pre-language. Some of them (chose the ‘baby age’ of) two or three-years-old, because they said that was the moment they kind of knew that they weren’t getting what they needed from their mothers,” she recalls.
“A lot of them had quite a psychological take on it, but I’m sure that was in an effort to understand it themselves. By the end of it, I didn’t really think there was a straightforward explanation. In a way, the psychology of it almost wasn’t honest. Even more now, we’re so bound by psychology – that’s a paradigm that I’ve definitely embraced. But, more and more, I’ve realised that it’s an unknown science. There are things that affect us and environment and childhood are extremely important, but sometimes things just aren’t that simple – or that complicated.
“They kind of saw me as a mother figure though, I think.”
Follow Niall Flynn on Twitter here @nwflynn