Art

Images of Swedish stay-at-home dads spark conversations on masculinity

by Maya Kaneko

Kyodo

A photo exhibition depicting Swedish stay-at-home dads who took parental leave for more than six months convincingly poses questions on societal perceptions of masculinity and gender equality.

Johan Bavman, 35, whose “Swedish Dads” collection of photos has been exhibited in 25 countries since the two-year project was completed in 2015, says he wants to show role models who are often “not perfect” as fathers, worn out from taking care of the kids.

Among the 45 fathers portrayed with their children in a photo book, 25 of whom are shown in the exhibition, are a dad vacuuming the floor while carrying his baby on his back, one helping his three kids brush their teeth and another looking at a smartphone while holding his baby in his other arm.

The photographer based in Malmo, Sweden, who spent a total of 19 months on parental leave for his own two sons and recently came back to work, was motivated to look for other stay-at-home dads because, he says, “(I had) no one I could relate to” when his first child was born five years ago.

Bavman says that most pictures of parenting are too commercialized, such as ones that show happy dads, or parents pushing their children on park swings, often leaving out the negative emotions that go into bringing up children. “Not often (would) you see pictures that express the emotions of tiredness and hard work you have to put in becoming parents,” he says.

Sweden, which ranked fifth out of 144 countries in the World Economic Forum’s 2017 Global Gender Gap Report, has one of the world’s most generous parental leave systems, allowing parents to stay at home with their children for 480 days paid for by the state.

In Japan, which ranked 114th in the gender gap report, the worst among industrialized nations, only 3 percent of fathers were on child care leave in fiscal 2016, including those who took only several days off, as opposed to more than 90 percent in Sweden.

To promote gender equality, Sweden allocates 90 of the 480 days to each parent exclusively. But only 14 percent of parents share the days equally and 25 percent of fathers claim all of the three-month leave period known as “daddy quota,” according to the photographer and Swedish Ambassador to Japan Magnus Robach.

Bavman says his country has been promoting gender equality for the past 40 years, partly driven by a labor shortage, but it still has “a long way to go to call ourselves equal.” He says only a fraction of Swedish dads take long-term leave as many men tend to earn more than women and there is a difficulty in changing social norms.

“A lot of women consider themselves better than men (in parenting) and a lot of dads consider themselves better as a breadwinner,” he says. “In a way it’s easier to go into the role that is given to you.”

But the photographer says he found months he spent with his two sons “priceless,” as he now has “better understanding of their needs, (a) better relationship and a good ground for me to build on” for the rest of his life being a father.

Working freelance, Bavman says he was initially wary of losing clients while taking paternity leave, but his wife, a corporate communicator who also works as a self-employed reporter, faced the same situation. The couple has to rely on each other as no relatives live around them to help out, he adds.

“There is always a discussion on whose job is more important” as both of them had “love” for and were “passionate” about their work, he says. “We needed both of us (as much as possible) to be at home but didn’t want to spoil our work.”

By always sharing burdens, he and his wife now find it easy to balance jobs and family life, Bavman says.

To find dads for the project, the cameraman put up posters at facilities for those on parental leave to meet other parents, posted information on social media and pursued candidates he heard about through the grapevine.

As a documentary photographer, Bavman often spent hours and days capturing moments when dads looked natural while taking care of their kids in everyday life. He says he wanted to take shots that could prompt a discussion about the role of fathers in society.

One of his favorite photos in the collection is the portrait of Goran Sevelin, a student who took a 10-month child care leave, with his daughter sleeping in a baby sling across his chest.

“This piece was deemed as controversial as it (was reminiscent) of St. Mary and he looked as if he were pregnant. It triggered a debate on men’s image,” Bavman says.

The exhibition, which will travel across Japan through summer 2018, is also scheduled to be held in another 25 countries. So far, the collection has been displayed in Vietnam, China, Uganda, Germany, Australia and the United States.

In Japan, the exhibition that began last August in Tokyo’s Shibuya district will travel next to Okayama, Fukuoka, Gunma, Kyoto and Nagasaki among other places.

The photographer says he believes his works have drawn interest globally because parenting is something almost everyone can relate to. Many viewers showed the same reaction, recalling similar experiences of handling housework and childcare or being envious of the Swedish parental leave system, he added.

But Bavman says he was shocked to hear a response from a woman in Tehran who said she thought men were taking away the one thing that women are better at. He says she asked, “What is left to me?”

“It’s complicated because their role is to take care of children. They’re not allowed to go back to work,” he says. While the Swedish system is not adaptable in some countries now, Bavman hopes that his exhibition could be a starting point for discussions to promote change.

“Swedish Dads” heads to the Okayama Municipal Center for the Promotion of Gender Equality (201 Arc Square Omotecho, 3-14-1 Omotecho, Kita Ward, 086-803-3355) between Jan. 13 and 25 before traveling to other locations. For more information on dates and cities, visit bit.ly/2xhHQ6v (in Japanese) or www.johanbavman.se.