Mia Warren has, since childhood, been a devoted and talented photographer. Her skills brought her to New York City, where she worked closely with Pauline Hawthorne, a famous photographer who recognized in Mia the potential for great talent and true art. New York was also where, desperate to be able to afford tuition in order to continue her studies, Mia agreed to serve as a surrogate mother for a wealthy couple, the Ryans, who’d struggled to conceive for years. After changing her mind about giving up the baby she’d carried for nearly nine months, Mia fled in the night, changed her last name, and began her life of transience, bohemian art-making, and hiding from anyone who might be able to piece together her true identity.
Mia’s photographs are not simply prints. Mia manually edits the photographs she takes, often cutting out sections, pasting on pieces of paper or other small objects which accentuate the subject or cast them in a different light. Mrs. Richardson, on an early visit to check in on Mia and Pearl to see what they’ve done with the rental space, notes a print of a dancer modified to “ma[ke] her resemble an enormous spider.” Mia’s vision as a photographer shows not simply what exists through the lens, but also what the lens can’t reflect.
The photographs, too, represent Mia’s livelihood—as do the pictures that Pauline took of Mia and Pearl and then, after her death, left to Mia, in order to help Mia and Pearl get on their feet and hopefully stay there. With the help of gallerist Anita Rees, Mia allowed Pauline’s pictures to be sold, and then was the recipient of the profit; when Mia was ready, Anita began selling Mia’s own work. Mia takes odd jobs everywhere she goes, but the sale of a photograph, and the often large sum of money she receives for that sale, represents accomplishment and the hope for success and stability for both Mia and Pearl.
As a parting gift of sorts—or, perhaps, as a kind of curse—Mia, when she and Pearl depart Shaker Heights at the novel’s end, leaves behind emotionally revealing photographs she’s taken over the course of the past several months, unbeknownst to the Richardsons, of each one of them. They are “half portraits, half wishes, caught on paper,” and the Richardsons describe looking at the photographs of themselves as “like catching a glimpse of your own naked body in a mirror.” The photographs offer the Richardsons self-reflection, catharsis, and judgement. Lexie’s features a piece of her discharge slip from the clinic; Moody’s, the wrinkled pages of a notebook he gave to Pearl as a gift, which she never used. Mrs. Richardson—a journalist—finds that her photograph depicts “a paper cutout of a birdcage, made of newsprint [cut from] one of her own articles.” Mia, an outsider, was able to wind herself into the Richardsons’ lives, and the photographs she’s created symbolize her ability to see each member of the family more clearly than any one of them can see each other. She offers them the photographs as both a benediction and an indictment as her final act before leaving Shaker Heights forever.
Mia’s Photographs Quotes in Little Fires Everywhere
[Mrs. Richardson] turned her attention to the largest print, which had been stuck up alone over the mantelpiece. It was a photograph of a woman, back to the camera, in mid-dance. The film caught her in blurred motion—arms everywhere, stretched high, to her sides, curved to her waist—a tangle of limbs that, Mrs. Richardson realized with a shock, made her resemble an enormous spider, surrounded by a haze of web. It perturbed and perplexed her, but she could not turn away.