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Four years ago, Jamie Diamond was looking for a realistic doll to use in her photographic series I Promise to Be a Good Mother. The project would be a performance piece in which she would act out scenes between a mother and child based on her own memories. Searching eBay, Diamond stumbled upon a trove of hyperrealistic dolls known as Reborn babies. “I purchased my first one a few weeks later and knew that I had found my next project,” she told Hyperallergic.
For her series Mother Love, Diamond traveled across the US photographing the subculture that has grown up around Reborn dolls. Artists and collectors known as “Reborners” nurture the babies as they would real children — holding them, dressing them, washing their hair, and buckling them into strollers for a walk through the park.
Such women find themselves frequently scrutinized and judged by those who find their fake children creepy. Media outlets have reported that they use the dolls as a coping mechanism for dealing with miscarriages, the loss of a child, or an empty nest. Diamond wanted a fuller understanding of what drove these women to spend sometimes more than $10,000 on a life-like but utterly lifeless infant (the photographer bought the cheapest she could find, used and damaged, for $350). What was it like to be a Reborner?
“I decided that the only way I could fully understand this community and the art making that went into it, was to become a Reborner myself, and I did,” Diamond explained about the point when the project took a decidedly different turn. Over the next nine months, the artist created her own Reborn babies and and put them up for “adoption” in her eBay shop, Bitten Apple Nursery. One listing introduced a smiling doll named Coco Malu. “She comes to you dressed in a 1 piece sleeper and a headband,” it read. “She has very realistic feel skin which is textured and very squeezable and snuggly. Her eyes are real glass and her hair is red/orange rooted mohair.”
The laborious process of creating Coco Malu required up to 80 individual layers of painted veining, blushing, mottling, and toning, each cured with heat. Strands of hair had to be individually attached to the scalp, and the doll had to be weighted to feel like a real baby in one’s arms. Before putting Coco Malu up for sale on eBay, Diamond photographed her with a large format camera, as she did all the Reborn babies she created.
Diamond said the series allowed her to explore the murky waters of reality mixed with artifice, where Reborners create relationships with inanimate objects — an art form born of fantasy. It’s clear it gave her greater empathy for the women. She continued exploring the subject through the Amy Project and a portrait series before moving on. Though she no longer calls herself a Reborner, she’s still planning to sell the remaining dolls on eBay, essentially funding the entire endeavor — although “I’ll probably keep one of the dolls for myself,” she admitted.