The woman's large hand firmly holds the frightened-looking child, a necessary gesture in early photography, when exposure times were usually too long for a child to sit still. The woman looks directly at the camera, asserting her presence as more than merely a prop to hold and control her charge during the exposure.
This daguerreotype was made about thirteen years prior to emancipation, so the woman holding the child was probably a slave. The black female domestic caretaker, commonly referred to as a "mammy," was frequently depicted in early photographic representations. The scarf-wearing black mammy caring for a white child also became a standard, romanticized icon of servitude in post-Civil War America.