We seem to be in the midst of a baby obsession. Multiple midwifery programmes dominate television schedules and an endless procession of celebrity parents fill the pages of magazines and newspapers. The work currently on show at The Photographers' Gallery takes a refreshingly different approach to the timeless topic of motherhood, focusing on how the quest for children and their subsequent arrival can affect the mother's sense of identity. Daring to be different, Home Truths breaks away from clichés of parental perfection and instead gives a more angsty, and ultimately honest, portrayal of the unique mother-child experience. A collaboration with the Foundling Museum, and the Museum of Contemporary Photography in Chicago, the exhibition features projects from eight different photographers, each of whom has a compelling, complex and highly personal story of parenthood to tell. These photographs expose the less idyllic aspects of the maternal process, and give much-needed exposure to themes that are not usually seen or openly discussed.  

The show begins with a graphic photograph by Elinor Carucci. The photographer's own naked torso stares back, distended and scarred after a cesarean birth. My belly after giving birth to twins and C-section (2004) is a brutally honest portrayal of the effects of pregnancy on the female body and it immediately sets a tone of unflinching reality for the rest of the exhibition. There is no sugar-coated idealism in these projects. As with Carucci's work, these photographs are autobiographical: intimate moments are made public as overwhelming experiences of motherhood are channeled through the camera in a kind of photographic therapy.

The cathartic process is very much a part of Elina Brotherus' Annunciation series, which follows her heartwrenching struggle to conceive through IVF. The prints all lean on a shelf, like photographs displayed in the home, and the title plays on classical imagery of the madonna and child, but instead of happy memories and miracles these images tell a story of desperate longing and devastating disappointment. Beneath the soft hued photographs there are also medical charts that contrast raw emotions with the cold analytics of the medical process. This exhibition is not just an exploration of the effect of having children, but the aching void felt by those without. 

Gasps and nervous giggles emanate from the other side of the room, from a project by one of only two male photographers included in this exhibition. It's because of Leigh Ledare that an age-restriction warning sits at the entrance. Ledare's work is the show-shocker. Controversial and disturbing, his candid photographs destroy the boundaries of a usual mother-son relationship, breaking so many taboos by showing in explicit detail his mother having sex. Unapologetically frank titles such as Mother Fucking in Mirror (2002) do little to minimise the controversy. Alongside the graphic shots there are less-contentious, morose portraits, as well as letters and other scraps from his mother's history. Ignored by most of the press, these other fragments give some redeeming context to the sexual photographs. The project is a portrait of an entire life and a complicated personality. But the work is still uncomfortable. In one note Ledare describes his mother's behaviour as he grew up as "a form of emotional hijacking", and that is exactly how it feels as a viewer. However this project is an important reminder that motherhood is never a "one-size-fits-all" experience for everyone. 

The complete antithesis to Ledare's work can be found upstairs. Heavenly pastel portraits by Hanna Putz radiate a more traditional and expected warmth. The mothers seem oblivious to the presence of the camera, allowing Putz to capture uncontrived genuine moments of women lost in tender maternal devotion to their babies. In each of the untitled photographs the child's body obscures the mother's face, visually representing the erosion of a woman's own identity as she becomes "Mum".

Whilst viewing this series, echoes of Katie Murray's Gazelle (2012) can also be heard. The video piece gives a comic break from the gravity of the other projects. Over six minutes supermum Murray exercises with an ever-increasing number of children on her back: a literal representation of the heavy workload women must contend with. Some other videos are also available on the lower floor. An interview with the curator plays on a TV equipped with headphones. While useful for preventing the audio from distracting others in the main space, the headphones do severely limit the number of people who can hear it, and it's frustrating having to queue. Also frustrating was the "coming on monday" notice on the other screen that should have been playing interviews with the photographers – a minor flaw in an otherwise flawless exhibition.            

Home Truths is a stretch-marks-and-all portrayal of motherhood. Unafraid to broach the awkward, it is far more interesting than just a sentimental celebration of the adventures of family life. All the different projects sit perfectly together, harmonious yet cleverly individualised through different framing techniques and intelligent arrangements. Society is still a little squeamish about pregnancy, but hopefully this will not affect the large visitor numbers that this show deserves.    

Home truths: Photography, Motherhood and Identity , at Photographers' GalleryStacey Harbour reviews Home Truths: Photography, Motherhood and Identity at the Photographers' Gallery, London.4