Inside the Lives of New York Nannies

Rato, 28, moved to America from South Africa. Rato takes the children she cares for to one of the parks on Manhattan’s Upper West Side almost every day the weather is nice. 

Ellen Jacob

As a resident of Manhattan’s Upper West Side, photographer Ellen Jacob would often notice nannies pushing children around in strollers on the street. Eager to learn more about the lives of these women, Jacob spent four years photographing dozens of nannies and the children in their care for her series, “Substitutes.” “My work explores the social, racial and economic relationships that powerfully affect life and largely go unnoticed,” Jacob wrote in a statement.

Jacob started by taking traditional street photographs, but she soon found that the anonymous images weren’t as in-depth as she wanted. That’s when she began approaching nannies at parks and schools, getting to know them and asking them to pose. Sometimes she’d spend an hour or two with a nanny. Other times she’d spend several days.

Jacob was especially interested in the economics involved in the nanny-child relationship. “Being a nanny is a low-paying job where love between the nanny and child is one of the anticipated but universally unspoken duties. This is an unusual expectation in a financial transaction,” Jacob wrote.

Strolling in Central Park is a daily activity for Ernestine and the boys she cares for. This is the fourth family for whom Ernestine has been a nanny. Each time, she has worked until the children were grown. She says she misses the children when she moves on. Ellen Jacob
After an afternoon playing in Hippo Playground near 91st Street in Riverside Park, Gemma stands with her son and two of the children she cares for. Gemma has been a nanny for more than 20 years. She says she feels like part of the family but doesn’t want to because she knows she has to leave one day. Ellen Jacob
At a pier along the Hudson River, Caitlin holds one of three children she cares for. Caitlin says others often think she is their mother. Ellen Jacob

Speaking with her subjects about their jobs got her better acquainted with what the nanny’s everyday lives were like. She learned that many worked long hours, with no sick pay or other benefits that come with full time jobs. Additionally, “Many had their own families once they came home,” Jacob explained.

Still, Jacob said that many of the ideas she had about nannies when she started the project changed with time. Jacob said she was struck by the genuine affection between the nannies and their children and the lengths to which parents would go to help their nanny find employment once the children had grown. She said the project also gave her a newfound appreciation for the nanny, Martha, who took care of her as a child. “What the project did was really open me up to other peoples’ lives. It made me have a lot more respect and compassion for other people as a whole,” Jacob said.

Jacob’s work is on view at SohoPhoto in New York City through Feb. 1. You can follow Jacob on Twitter.

Boblin and and one of the children she cares for ride the bus up Amsterdam Avenue from morning classes on the way to lunch and then ballet class.

Ellen Jacob

After a picnic in Central Park, Kim plays with two of the three children she cares for. Kim says she sometimes feels she’s one of the kids and runs and rolls around in the grass with them. Ellen Jacob
After Boblin’s “family” moved to New Jersey, she commuted four hours a day until the family found a new nanny. Ellen Jacob
Sharon is standing in front of the subway station near the apartment building on Central Park West where the child she cares for lives. She says she misses her own daughter who is back home in the islands. She sends money home. Ellen Jacob