Photographing Birth

Birth is an incredibly beautiful, powerful, humbling thing to witness. But I didn’t always think of it that way.

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Like many people, I had been pretty shocked by the graphic depictions of birth I’d been forced to sit through in 8th grade health. If I had to think about birth, I’d mentally reference this scene from Baby Mama. But I was always curious about this incredibly miraculous, powerfully human thing that happens almost five times every second.

Spurred by my interest in women’s health and health disparities, I decided to become a doula. Having never seen a birth, I decided to go about getting exposure to the process. And that led me to photography.

I feel that capturing the beauty of birth is important, beyond just providing a personal service. By putting these pictures out into the world, other women can begin visualizing something intimate, peaceful and empowering for themselves.

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I’m still new to this process. Birth photography poses a lot of challenges, and a lot of rewards. It feels a little odd to take pictures of someone who is clearly so focused on a monumental task, half naked, and moaning. I just feel so lucky to get to be there, and to help provide something for them that they’ll always value.

IMG_9612I love getting to see newborns.  Watching the first few minutes of their lives is breathtaking! The way they move to find the breast is amazing, like little sea turtles scuttling for the shore. Their brains are a tangle of neurons, processing images as sounds and colors as shapes, trying to sort out this blinding, strange new world.

So what does a birth photographer do, exactly? I strive for several things:

1. To be like a (supportive) fly on the wall. Mom’s got some serious work to do, and she doesn’t want a shutterbug in her face. I sit back, allow for things to unfold, and work simply to capture them (posing is not a part of this process!). Offering a smile or an encouraging word is always okay, but only when the time is right.

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2. In this vein, I don’t believe in photoshopping or getting heavy-handed with editing. If there is smudgy makeup or fly-aways or goop, it stays. The beauty is in the power of the event, not in everything looking perfect.

2. I work to capture the small things. The moments she has with her partner, the people that were there, the nurses, the house or hospital, what the day was like. These are the things that get forgotten. The photographs should capture the experience in its entirety.

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3. I edit quickly! People will want images to send to family, to post, to see for themselves as they put together their own narratives of how the birth went. I get photos back to people within 24 hours, usually much less.

4. I include the whole team– I’m sure to get pictures of dad/partner and anyone else who was supportive (like doulas!).

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5. I have to be prepared– birth can happen at any moment. To commit to photographing a birth, you have to be ready to get up in the middle of the night and drop all your plans for the next 24 hours or more. And because nobody wants to feel like a watched pot, bringing things to do while you wait is paramount.

6. If mom wants to, filming it is great– the woman who’s home birth I attended chose to deliver that way in large part to all the videos of home births she watched online. I filmed it and then ( about 6 weeks later) interviewed the mom about her experience. It was incredible. When I asked her about how she felt looking back at it, she suddenly became completely choked up, catching both of us by surprise. “I haven’t been emotional about this until now!” she laughed, wiping away tears. If you listen closely, you may hear little sounds from her baby she was nursing at the time.

I have a lot of gratitude for the people who have allowed me to witness and photograph such a visceral human experience. So much of our life is neat and predictable, but birth is overwhelmingly real. And every one of us entered the world as intensely vulnerable creatures, like baby birds without feathers, all wrinkly and wailing.

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The best part is that moment of seeing a mother, who’s shared a body with this stranger for the better part of a year, finally get to meet her baby– it always leaves me speechless.

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2 Comments Add yours

  1. wow! Those are incredible photos! So moving! I sure wish you were present at my son’s birth (turns 24 next month). All I have from that experience is the goofy newborn photo taken the next day, hat on backwards (new mom duh) white suit, looking like a tiny Elvis….Your photos are so personal and beautiful. That’s a real gift Claire!

  2. Your photographs are not only incredible but support to dispel of many wrong notions which folks continue to have about that incredible process which gives rise to a new life. Not only in humans but other species too.

    Have you ever wondered what makes all newborn babies so alike? It is only after a while that the genes kick in to give each one of them a different look….

    Shakti

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