In the Reborning subculture, collectors “adopt” hyper-realistic artificial babies–impeccably crafted from vinyl, glass, doe suede, and up to eighty layers of paint. The “parents” care for their dolls as if they were living infants, building nurseries and throwing birthday parties and baby showers. The dolls are straight out of the uncanny valley, with verisimilitude right down to tiny pink fingernails, fine blue veins, and glistening drool. The craftspeople, called Reborners, sell their work to collectors for up to thousands of dollars.
For her series “Mother Love,” New York-based photographer Jamie Diamond immersed herself in the Reborning subculture, which began in the U.S. in the late 1990s. Diamond first encountered the movement in 2010 while working on a self-portrait project, “I Promise to be a Good Mother.” After stumbling upon some unsettlingly lifelike dolls being auctioned on eBay for exorbitant prices, “I purchased my first one and knew that I had found my next project,” Diamond tells Co.Design.
“I am fascinated by this fiction and the community that exists to support it,” Diamond says. At first, she had trouble gaining the trust of members of the subculture, despite their large online communities. To better understand Reborn doll-mothers, Diamond became a professional Reborner herself. “Over a two-year period, I traveled across the country learning the art of Reborning from the movement’s leading practitioners,” she says. She attended conventions and classes, studied with collectors and makers, and photographed them in their homes. Some Reborners also collect the dolls; some just sell them to collectors.
The doll design process–called Reborning–is elaborate and time-consuming. Each one takes weeks to Reborn. Creators hand-root each strand of mohair onto a doll’s scalp. They replicate dewy newborn skin by adding up to 80 layers of paint to the vinyl molded baby, which then must be baked to be sealed. Some are then perfumed with new-baby smell.
Diamond’s photo series is in several parts. In the first, collectors mother their reborn dolls. In the second, called “Mother Love: Jesus Reborned,” Diamond selected nine historical representations of the infant Christ Child–including paintings by the likes of Albrecht Durer and Raphael–and invited members of the Reborn community to create portrait busts inspired by these images. “The resulting dolls evolve from articles of personal sentiment into the realm of the iconic, becoming collective idols of the Christian God,” she says. These disembodied baby heads, with their glassy unblinking eyes, offer a modern American update to a long tradition of creepy Baby Jesus art.
In the third part, Diamond asked a group of Reborners to manufacture a doll from the same generic mould, and to add their own personal touches to create their fantasy baby. Diamond then photographed these dolls, painting as diverse ethnicities and genders, against a traditional “school portrait” backdrop in various nurseries.
The psychology behind collecting Reborn dolls is complex. In some cases, women who collect the dolls have lost a baby or suffered from repeated miscarriages, as ABC reported. One Reborner, Florida-based doll artist Eve Newsom, told ABC her passion stemmed from “Not being able to have children. And not having the resources, actually, to adopt. This was my calling. And now it’s my passion. … My Reborns bring me a medium of joy and happiness.”
One particularly fanatical Reborn doll collector in Britain, Kerrie Williams, made headlines after spending £20,000 (roughly $30,246) on seven such artificial babies, and then pampering them with clothes and toys and a $1,500 stroller. She’s biological mother to two living humans as well, who are reportedly jealous of the attention she lavishes on her vinyl babies. But like many collectors, her interest in the dolls stems from personal tragedy–a miscarriage caused her to “hit rock bottom,” as she told the Daily Mail. “I hoped the [Reborn] baby could replace the child we had lost,” Williams said, “but instead my family said Owen was weird.”
But in other cases, collectors simply enjoy playing mother to the dolls. As one collector told ABC, “I take them out to the park, if I’m walking the dog, and maybe put it in its stroller, or put it in its sling, or hold it in a blanket, and people do think it’s real.”