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Inside the Curious World of Reborn Baby Dolls

Girl and doll

Going for a walk 

Sabine and her doll, Emely

Joyce Moreno (1942-2015) was a nurse, specializing in neonatal intensive care, an ordained minister, and a renowned reborn artist. A master of sewing, Moreno began her practice in 1989, when she had the idea to separate the head of her Berenguer brand baby doll from its body, then completely recreate the baby’s face and body as she envisioned it.

“Reborning is taking an unpainted doll and hand painting and detailing it to the point of realism that it is difficult to tell that it is not a real breathing baby/infant,” Moreno explained. “I try my best to add that little something extra, that little bit of true baby essence that makes a big difference in the outcome of what makes it look like a real live baby.”

Her practice was extremely thorough, taking the craft to an art, detailing, “I started with a blank form without paint. His vinyl baby soft skin, is then prepared to receive the delicate layering of paints I use. Layer after layer of my own unique blend of paints are carefully applied, until he began to take on the look and feel of a real newborn.”

The results caught on as these reborn babies spoke to women who could appreciate the work put in: from replacing plastic eyes with glass and hand painting barely-there eyebrows was complemented to the intricate addition of micro-rooted, premium Angora mohair to effect the silky, delicacy of a newborn’s hair. The baby’s limbs were filled with sand, transforming once rigid plastic dolls into mobile, cuddly creations weighted just right, so that they nestled like real newborns might.

For more than three decades, a thriving subculture has been quietly flourishing. For the past two years, German photographer Lena Kunz has been found her way into this world, traveling from referral to referral, and discovering the happiness these unlikely dolls bestow on their owners in her series Artificial Reality. Here Kunz speaks with us about what she has found photographing grown women who still take exceptional pleasure from playing with dolls.

Sandra

How did you come upon the phenomenon of women who own dolls that look like real babies?
“I met the first woman by coincidence; she is the mother of a friend, Jule, and she was talking about the doll when I visited my friend. She showed me a photo of her doll and I thought this could be interesting. She was happy to be photographed, and gave me contact information for other women who had dolls.“

Could you describe a typical photo shoot: what kind of activities would occur?
“One woman will tell me about another; it’s like a network. I would meet a new woman at her home and ask her a few questions like how long she has the doll, what is she doing with it, and how her boyfriend or husband is reacting. Men mostly find it weird in the beginning, but after some time they begin to understand, or find it funny — though there were also some trying to ignore it.

“Everything at the shoot is unplanned, which feels sometimes a little uncomfortable — but it helps me to be open for something that wouldn’t happen when I would have a clear idea. I usually visit the woman just once, but I can meet them again and shoot again. The first woman I met, I have visited five times.

“If the woman normally goes outside with the dolls, I would join her for a walk. There were also women that have own kids, and that made taking photos easy because the kids were just playing with the doll sometimes.“

Real kid and baby doll

Two dolls, the girl in the left is a doll, too.

How would you describe the lives of the women you met?
“Many of the woman that are now around 50 years old couldn’t have the lives they wanted or be the kind of person they wanted to be. They were told to conform to this or that, and some were unable to make their own decisions or shape their own lives. In the past, they didn’t have the ability to voice their own wishes — and by playing with dolls, they now have an opportunity for self-empowerment, and are free to do what they want.

“There are many roles you must play and a lot of pressure that you have as a real mother, so maybe it’s also nice for them to be in this state again without any obligations. And, since this is not a real baby, no one will make comments or hints, or tell them what to do. Besides that, I could see that the women are more happy with the doll — and they told me that’s how they feel.”

Did any of the women tell you why they chose to invest so much time and energy into their dolls?
“For each person, there is a different reason. For some women, it is a very important thing. Others don’t take it so seriously and just collect them. Some women will buy a new one because they didn’t get comfortable with the first one or sell it after a year or so. They say that they like the feeling of having the doll in the arms and changing their clothes. Some sew for their doll and gift clothing to other reborn mothers or sell it. It’s a hobby for them.

“Some women wish for a grandchild. Others’ children have died. But many also have real children. The younger girls that I met this year would like to have a baby but say that they are too young so they play with dolls. It’s interesting for them to play with a whole routine for a day, but it is not a must, and it’s not like this everyday.

“If they walk around with the buggy, people are helpful, and you get attention. People on the street don’t know that the baby isn’t real, so some of the women would be seen as a mother rather than get no attention or space at all.“

The woman are open about their wishes, feelings and needs.

The parts of a reborn doll before the artist
puts them together on to a body and customizes it.

We built our own reality.

Images: © Lena Kunz

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