"I was studying for my masters degree in Wales and feeling uninspired, when I started noticing all these young women with babies in town," says Italian photographer Marta Giaccone. "At first I thought they were babysitters or older sisters, then I realised they were the mothers." She set herself a goal: every day she would talk to three girls that she saw pushing prams down the street.
Marta had recently interned with the late, legendary documentary photographer Mary Ellen Mark in New York -- working in her studio and archiving her prints. Afterwards, back in Italy, she had decided she needed a photography degree. "I was totally self-taught until then," she told me over the phone from Milan. "Even though my dad is actually a photographer too."
She found Newport, like her hometown of Milan, grey. And not in a way she could get used to. But there are no university-level photography courses in Italy and, once she settled on her final project, she became fascinated with the different lives the South Wales town exposed her to. "I think a lot of the girls I approached thought I was crazy," she laughs. "Some of them would say yes and then stop replying to my texts. But 25 or 30 followed through. I am so grateful that they did. They let me into their houses and we spent hours talking."
Her documentary series Be Still, My Heart, captures the women she met at home with their children - some of whom were born when their mothers were just 16 and still in school. "A lot of them said, 'We're parents just like any other parents,'" Marta remembers. But her photos of their teenage bedrooms -- messy with clothes and collaged with band posters -- tell a more complicated story about coming of age in a country with the fourth highest teen pregnancy rate in Europe.
Why do you think the girls wanted to be involved?
With some of them, it was as if they were waiting for somebody to talk to. At first, they were shy. But when I went over, it was just me and them and the baby, sometimes the boyfriend. It was very intimate. And I think they opened up because they saw that I really cared about them, and because no one else had ever asked them about their story.
The rate of teen pregnancies is very high in the UK but there's still a lot of prejudice. So the girls were always on the defensive. And they're very proud. They all told me that, of course, they weren't planning on having kids, but it happened and they would never go back or change anything. Having a baby changed their life for the better. A lot of them even said that their kids were their saving grace. That was really powerful.
For my part, I was genuinely interested because in Italy people have kids a lot later. My parents had me when they were much, much older. It is a really, really different world from mine. But I don't have any prejudices - because why should I? It was interesting to find out about the lives of other girls that were so different from mine.
Were a lot of the girls still in school?
Some of them work, some have boyfriends who work, others get benefits from the government. And some work and go to school, which is amazing.
What kind of support do they get from their friends and families?
Some of them live at home and their parents help look after the kids. They've nearly all stopped going out and partying. A lot of them told me, "My priorities have changed now. I'm not going out, which means I've lost all of my friends, but it's ok. I don't feel my age any more, I feel older." At 16 or 18, a lot of them felt directionless and having a kid gave them structure -- even though it really scared them at first. But now they're really proud and strong. Some of them went through violence and abuse in their own homes. One of the girls' mothers literally stole her child. They were fighting in court for custody. It was crazy.
Why do you think we have such a high teen pregnancy rate?
All of the Welsh kids I met in the street didn't know what to do with their lives. They were just out of school. They were hanging out, eating, drinking. I asked one of the girls I photographed and her boyfriend that question. They said, "We just kind of do what we do, we have fun and we think about the consequences later."
But interestingly, most of the girls waited until their kids were a year old -- when they could leave them with their parents for the day -- and started college. They're studying healthcare and social work. I really liked that after they got pregnant they wanted to take care of other kids. It totally changed their perspective. I met a 17-year-old who wanted to start a nursery. Some of the girls didn't have anyone before, a lot of them went through a lot with their families and ex-boyfriends, but now finally they feel safe. They have somebody who needs them, and it makes them stronger.
Did a lot of them come from families with teenage parents?
Yeah, definitely. Most of their parents had their first kid when they were teenagers. A lot of their grandmothers and great-grandmothers are still so young.
How did the girls feel about their pictures?
Most of them thought they looked really serious, because the only direction I gave them was to not smile. I liked that the pictures resembled the Madonna and Child, and the Madonna never smiles. She's proud and fierce. Some of them thanked me for the photographs, but they didn't really care because they just take selfies every day anyway! They already have so many pictures of themselves.
Be Still, My Heart will show at Made in Wales, at Cardiff Made from September 11 to September 13.
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Text Alice Newell-Hanson
Photography Marta Giaccone