It all started with an article on the front page of the New York Times about birth photography. With the recent controversial print cover of “Are You Mom Enough” on the the cover of TIME magazine and the reactions of the parenting community I was a bit nervous to read what the NYT had to say about birth photography. This area that I specialize in is a very brand new and growing trend amongst the birthing community as well as professional photographers. It’s a genre that I’ve always felt might be a hot topic for controversy because anything and everything in the parenting world is a ‘hot topic’ – from pacifiers, to attachment parenting, to co-sleeping, to natural births, to circumcision. If parents have such strong opinions on these topics, it would stand to reason that birth photography is in the line of fire as well.
the article released a wave of reactionary articles some good some bad. Some, like this article in Yahoo mention that birth photography is for ‘high-maintenence and shallow women’. The caption under the photo of a mother happily receiving her newborn baby for presumably the first time reads: “does it take a pro to take a gorgeous birth photo?” (ironically, that gorgeous photo WAS taken by a professional photographer…). The Huffington Post got in on the action with an article saying: “today’s pregnant celebrity pre- and post-birth images (many of them Photoshopped, I presume) may pressure women to feel they have to look perfect for the birth photo.”
What I noticed about these articles was the lack of imagery. For an article on the topic of PHOTOGRAPHY, it would seem a bit odd that there really weren’t more photographs on the subject. With birth photography, one needs to be able to experience it- to see it- to fully understand it. One also needs to be familiar with the birth process to appreciate it. There was also a blatant lack of interviews from mothers who had chosen to have their birth photographed, and why they had chosen to do so.
In our interview with Chanel 3 news, Ali McCormick talked about what it was like to have the birth of her first baby photographed by me. One of the photographs that was taken won the Canon Imagin8ion Project photography contest and consequently inspired a hollywood production directed by Bryce and Ron Howard.
She said “People always say, you know, I don’t know if I would want someone photographing my labor or my birth. You don’t necessarily always want to look back and see pain in yourself. But it’s a pain that out of this pain comes so much beauty- so much joy”.
Ron Howard describes the birth photography as “It’s dramatic, it’s utterly human, powerfully relatable…(her work) spoke so pointedly, powerfully, to a very relatable set of human emotions.”
In our culture there is a fear surrounding birth. On screen we see women being rushed into the emergency room in a wheelchair- she’s screaming, doctors are panicking, fathers are fainting, blood is gushing. Women are laying on their back in a hospital bed cursing the father for doing this to them, sweating and screaming in pain. This is our only introductory course to birth- unlike in the past (where women aided and gathered for their relative’s births) most women have never seen a birth in real life. Rooms are closed, it is a private, quiet affair. Our culture has what seems to be ‘badges of honor’ for the most horrific of birth stories, and women freely tell them, one-upping another. The women who have wonderful births seem to enjoy them quietly, and never shout their praises from the rooftops. So of course, it is no wonder that someone may ask the question “WHY on earth is this something you would want photographed?”
But the reality of birth for most people is just the opposite. birthing is done in a quiet place, usually with low comforting light, with support givers surrounding the laboring mother. For most women, this is the best day of their life- a day topping even their wedding day. For women who document every other aspect of their child’s life in professional photography, wouldn’t it stand to reason that the birth, arguably the most important and significant day of the baby’s life, would be at the top of the list to be remembered? but aside from birth photography being ‘powerful’ and ‘emotional’… it still hasn’t answered the burning questions of WHY you would want someone at YOUR birth.
Lets list some common questions and concerns that have been brought up in the recent stir of media craziness:
isn’t it kind of….gross?
Yeah… sort of. There is definitely going to be all kinds of bodily fluids present, some of which you may not even be aware existed if this is your first baby. Your baby is not going to be clean, and you are not going to be ‘photo ready’ in the traditional sense. To an outsider who has never experienced what birth is like, it’s definitely going to seem ‘gross’, but it’s not going to be like someone coming to photograph you while you have the stomach flu. This is a rite of passage in to motherhood, into becoming a woman. This is the day that will change your life forever irreversibly, a day when you feel the love and support of your partner, a day that will demonstrate the true emotions and bonds of love, a day where you will never be the same again afterward. One of the ways in which you will change is your view on ‘gross’ and bodily fluids, they will no longer become ‘gross’ but a part of the most amazing life you just created. If you have never delivered a baby or witnessed a birth before, you might think, for example, that the goop that covers a baby when she’s first born is disgusting and needs to be cleaned off. What you may not realize, however, is that baby is being introduced to dry air FOR THE VERY FIRST TIME. that ‘goop’ called Vernix, and it is quickly absorbed by the baby’s skin in the first few minutes (dont wipe it away!) to help with the transition into the dry world. It also carries antimicrobial properties to help the baby ward off infection. So, you see, you begin to view these preconceived ‘gross’ things in a new light. that ‘goopy’ substance is helping out your newborn baby survive. We photograph relationships, emotions, and experiences, We dont photograph ‘things’ or ‘portraits’. This isn’t about looking beautiful, it’s about photographing the experience.
Are you going to get all ‘National Geographic’ up in there?
When someone photographs a birth, only about 1% of the photographs are actually of ‘the birth’. its mainly comprised of the labor, care givers and support systems helping you through the transition, and the measuring, weighing, swaddling of the baby. we’ll photograph the mother feeding the baby for the first time, reactions of other family members, the entire process. The head crowning is not technically ‘must have’ shot for me, and as a matter of fact, some hospitals wont allow a photographer to photograph the actual entrance of the baby. If it is requested by the mother, I will do my best to capture it, but there are a variety of angles that do the job just as well, not just between the legs. And in all the birth photography I’ve ever viewed, I’ve never seen one featuring poop, stretched out vagina, blood and gore, etc. I think all birth photographers are concerned with the emotional connection between parents, and the new life being born.
are you shallow and high-maintence if you hire a birth photographer?
I have NEVER in my life encountered a shallow or high-maintenence woman who wanted to have their birth photographed. That thought is not only offensive to me, but it is so outrageous that it has actually never come into my conscious mind until I read some of these reactionary articles. This article exaggerates that “..Ridiculous fallout from such a practice there will inevitably be from women who want to look gorgeous in the shots. Soon labor and delivery rooms will have hair and makeup people on call, and lightening specialists ready to step in.” A woman who hires a professional photographer to capture her birth knows that she is going to look like a train wreck- she’s going to be working harder than she ever has in her entire life, going through more pain that she has ever thought possible, and going to be showing a side of her that she herself has never experienced. These woman have the highest degree of self-confidence and awareness to set aside the popular ideals of ‘beauty’ and place the actual Experience at the top of their values. They all understand that this isn’t about a photoshoot, this is about the experience and not forgetting what it was like to go through that rite of passage. There is no smiling or posing involved here- this is about real life. One commenter mentioned that she would NEVER have a birth photographer present- but that she would pay a professional photographer to photograph newborn photos once she had a chance to run a brush through her hair and put on some makeup. The irony of the comment is so poignant- is it more ‘vain’ to have someone photograph the rawness of the event, or the perfected prettiness of it afterward once you’ve had a chance to beautify?
Does it take a pro to capture a gorgeous birth photo?
Cant the Groom just take pictures of the wedding day himself? sure. but is that really fair to him? Dads have been bringing along a camera to the birth for many many many years, and i’m sure they’ve gotten some great shots. but when a laboring mother is going through the most difficult pain she’s ever experienced, the thing I would imagine would piss her off the most is her husband or partner taking pictures instead of being present with her and supporting her. Lest we forget, this is the birth of a baby that is not just Mom’s baby but her partner’s baby too. It is a rite of passage for Dad just as much as Mom. Don’t both parents deserve to be able to be present emotionally as well as physically? And, because most births happen in low lit areas (laboring mothers instinctively seek out dark safe areas in which to birth), it can be very difficult to capture a decent photo with a consumer-grade camera. A Professional photographer will have the ability to shoot in the most challenging lighting situations WITHOUT using an obtrusive flash, be able to stand back, use a great telephoto, and capture real emotion between both parents without interfering. in that sense, yes, it takes a pro to capture a gorgeous birth photo.
It is only for the rich.
While birth photography IS expensive, it is necessarily so. Clients are paying for a photographer to be on call 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Photographers give up time with their own children, the flexibility to travel more than an hour away from their home, their own children’s school or sports events, the need to reschedule other portrait client’s sessions, last minute childcare that could last anywhere from 4-48 hours, client consultation meetings, not to mention the time actually at the birth, equipment costs, editing time, insurance, etc. Parents can expect to start thinking about birth photography like they would wedding photography- professional coverage of an event that can not be replicated, complete with back-up cameras (in case of failure), back up photographers (in case of illness), albums and prints, and consultation meetings to make sure they’re on the same page about the birth plan, and any procedures should the birth not happen according to plan. With a greater number of emerging birth photographers, however, there are many different price points according to the experience of the photographer. Many people should be able to find a photographer that fits their budget (start by looking at the International Association of Professional Birth Photographers- who have a listing of members).
Will we feel like there is an intruder?
The idea of having a photographer in the room when a woman is so vulnerable and ‘naked’ in every sense of the word DOES feel intrusive. That is why I take lots of time before the birth to meet with clients in person whenever possible, and talk thoroughly about their birth plan, hopes, and dreams for their birth and baby. I’m respectful of all decisions (regardless if they are the decisions I myself would or did make), and am there as a quiet supporter. One who happens to have a camera, but stands at the furthest most reaches of the room, like a fly on the wall. I know my role is to document, and not to interject myself. If a parent or mother- for whatever reason- requests no pictures be taken, I am more than happy to oblige. However, there have been times I’ve had to step in to hold a laboring mother’s hand while she bears down, and am happy to do so. I am after all, at the core, a mother and woman who knows what this sort of thing is like. My most recent client asked me “why don’t you just become a midwife? you obviously have a deep passion for the medical aspects behind birthing, and have the perfect quiet temperament to do so”. But alas, I think I’d made a terrible midwife, as I would constantly be thinking “oh… where is that camera… this should be photographed. What an incredibly beautiful moment…” When I’m in the room, I am part of the birth team- a professional- a person my client has handpicked out of the masses to be one of the intimate few who is present at this rite of passage. There is no intrusion, only support and trust.
What about privacy… aren’t these a little intimate?
any photographs that are ever published on my website are done so with the expressed consent and approval of my clients. They understand that a photographer’s portfolio is the only means necessary to visually explain to potential clients what birth photography is like, what they too could have, and how beautiful it truly is. They understand that by putting those photographs on my website they are helping to encourage other soon-to-be mothers that this rite of passage is (for some) a once in a lifetime event that they will want to look back on. The full galleries of all my clients (that do usually include some photographs of a sensitive nature) are password protected, and clients have full control over who they share that gallery and password with. These are THEIR photos of THEIR experience, and trust me to handle it accordingly. I’m pretty sure most of my birth photography has never made it onto facebook, or the internet for that matter, and these photos are solely for the parents.
I dont want 10,000 people in my delivery room. i want it to be intimate.
One photographer isn’t 10,000 people. We’re part of the birth team, just like you need a midwife and a birth assistant, or a doctor and a nurse. but of course, if you dont want another person there, then just don’t hire a photographer. its definitely not for everyone, and if its not for you, then that’s ok! as always, to each her own.
What if things don’t go as planned?
Some of the reactionary articles expressed concern that having a birth photographer there would be like setting up the perfect Kodak moment, and then crushing the mother as things didn’t go according to her beautifully laid birth plan. That is why it’s SO important to have ample client meetings before the birth to talk about that very subject, about how no matter what happens the woman is becoming a mother. No matter if she has a natural birth, a c-section, an induced labor, or a home water birth- the result is the same, and just as beautiful as any other way. We plan for any situation we can think of, and prepare for all options. 1/4 of my birth photography contract discusses events which may lead to me not being able to photograph the birth (for a number of reasons) so my clients are well aware of the fact that there could be a good possibility that things may be different than they had planned. Regardless, there are pre-labor photos taken, and after delivery photos taken, and the entire process tells a story. No one is being set up for failure here- we’re all on the same support team train.
What triggered this new surge of birth photography?
There is a long answer for this, one deeply set into Women’s Studies and the history of birth in the united states. The short answer is that I believe women are beginning to take the birth experience back. They are beginning to embrace it again as a validating rite of passage and a celebration of not only life but of motherhood. With films such as “the Business of being born” and books like “Your Best Birth” women are seeing other women take charge of their health care, take charge of their bodies, believe in themselves, and fight for their babies. Women who may not have ever had the opportunity to be mothers (due to infertility, or other obstacles) are now being able to become pregnant due to technological advances in medicine, and value this once in a lifetime chance and want to hold on to it for as long as possible. Husbands who are deployed overseas are able to experience the birth of their child in a way that wasn’t possible before. Lest we forget just fifty years ago women were being drugged and completely knocked out, into the ‘twilight sleep’ they called it. They were restrained, had hallucinations, had no say in the experience they were to have, and the drugs created an amnesia so the mother would not remember any part of the labor or delivery. Consequently, many women had trouble bonding with their babies and felt confused and bewildered by the early stages of motherhood. Even such shows as Mad Men have illustrated the birth experience in the 1960s; the episode “The Fog” depicts the female lead character Betty Draper and her experience in the hospital being drugged. The writers talk about what it was like for women in the 1960s giving birth in this clip, and this article gives a great history of how Twilight Sleep evolved and shaped the rest of drug-induced labor still today, and robbed women of their birth experience. Now, more and more women are realizing that the birth experience is a natural one (‘natural’ in the sense that it’s a natural evolutionary process, epidural or not), not a medical emergency or ‘situation’, and that we were (quite literally) physically made to give birth. We have taken back the control and we want it celebrated and cherished, not drugged and forgotten.
Anyone who thinks birth photography is about looking good on camera obviously hasn’t seen any birth photographs. it’s about documenting life as it happens, it’s about a rite of passage, it’s about a once in a lifetime event, it’s about remembering, it’s about celebrating life, it’s about celebrating love, it’s about capturing support, it’s about being able to experience the moment and not being distracted by “where is that camera again? how do you work this thing?” it’s about being mentally and physically present for your partner and for the new life being born. it’s about love and family, about community and strength. it’s about being showing your child: “I love you, i have always loved you, from the first moment i saw you, and even before then. I worked for you, I gave it all to you, I will always always do anything I can for you. We were all there, we all celebrated you. You were loved from the first moment, and every moment after that.” It’s about saying “I did that. WE did that. we made this life, and this is her story”.
It’s about the end of perpetuating Birth as ‘gross’ and ‘i dont want a reminder’ and ‘want to forget it ever happened’ and realigning our perspectives to view it as a beautiful miracle.
that is what it’s about.