You’d pay a professional to photograph your wedding so, Sarah Tennant asks, why not the other most important day in your life?
When Southland mum Annie Waters told her friends and family she was planning on hiring a birth photographer, they were a little dubious. “There was a bit of ‘eew’ and ‘why would you want to do that?’” recalls Annie.
Actually, she was lucky. One article about birth photography on CBC News Canada’s website featured 187 comments — all negative. “Part of the whole ‘look-at-me’ narcissism of parents,” sniffed one commenter. “Tacky and disgusting,” said another.
A third: “What’s next? Videos of the event that caused the birth nine months earlier?”
As an avid reader of birth blogs, I was frankly blindsided by the negativity. I’ve seen thousands of birth photos and never come across one that I’d call “tasteless” or “obscene” (to pick some other adjectives from the comments section). Nor have I seen mums-to-be mugging it for the camera in a pitiful effort to look glamorous during transition.
It seems birth photography is the victim of some vicious high school rumours. Let’s set the record straight, shall we?
Capturing the journey
Out of necessity, birth photographers adopt a photo-journalistic style. Unlike maternity and newborn photo shoots, the aim isn’t to stage beautiful, flattering glamour shots — it’s to tell the story of the labour and birth. Flies on the wall, the photographers capture glances, hugs, grimaces and clenched fists. Many of the photos aren’t even of the mother. The photographer might shoot the birthing centre at dawn, the clock at the time of birth, or Dad texting everyone the good news.
As such, I’ve never seen a birth photo I’d call glamorous, but I’ve seen some stunningly beautiful ones. Deep in labour land, most women barely notice the photographer and their expressions — anguish, tiredness and all — are raw and powerful. A talented photographer can capture the strength and beauty of a labouring woman even when she’s sweaty and wearing a ratty nursing bra.
Thanks to the “story” focus of birth photography, even unpredictable births can be captured. A C-section may involve the photographer handing the camera to the midwife for the actual event, but the “before” and “after” can still be shot. For mothers floored by a dramatic birth, photos can be very helpful — a way to piece together events and remember the moments of beauty amid the chaos.
In a way, it’s like wedding photography. These days few couples stick with posed group shots outside the church. They want the whole day captured, the prosaic as well as the sublime. The bride getting her hair done, the father of the groom hastily polishing his shoes, the flower girl falling asleep with her mouth open. Having an observer record these moments helps give the bride a fuller picture of a day which often passes in a blur.
For many people, the phrase “birth photography” apparently conjures up images too ghastly to contemplate. Birth photographer Paula Brown put it succinctly: “They think of crowning.”
In fact, judging by reactions I’ve seen, they think of crowning shots leering out at them from a Facebook feed or foisted upon unsuspecting visitors.
I admit, I have seen some graphic birth shots online. And I think they’re awesome — great resources to show nervous mums-to-be how birth works.
That said, women who choose, let alone share, graphic shots are a rarity. Birth photography isn’t about genitals, it’s about story and relationships. A good photographer can shoot a birth entirely from the neck up if need be. When Annie’s family saw the final slide show of her birth, they were surprised by how tasteful the shots were — black and white, no blood or gore, just a beautiful record of a couple welcoming their baby into the world. Far from cringing, one auntie even found herself tearing up.
A birth photographer will have a “nudity chat” with the mother prior to delivery to ensure everyone’s on the same page, and will promise to get rid of any images that accidentally capture forbidden areas. Birth photographers may also put explicit photos in a separate folder, so you can easily see what (not) to show the minister’s wife.
Birth photographers are essentially on call for the weeks surrounding a due date and their fees reflect it. Between the high price tag and some mothers’ reluctance to let another stranger into the birth space, the task of documenting the birth often falls to an amateur, in many cases, Dad.
Unfortunately, amateurs don’t have a very good track record when it comes to the results. Births are tricky. The lighting is usually terrible, the photographer may be wedged behind a foetal monitor or following a woman as she roams around her house. The exciting moments will happen only once, whether the battery is working or not.
The midwife’s photos just after my son’s birth, for instance, are definitely in the “treasure them for their content, not their quality” camp. Lousy lighting? Check. Accidental nipple-flashing? Check. Placenta looming conspicuously in the background of all the baby’s newborn shots? You betcha.
Then there’s the fact that a professional photographer probably won’t faint at the sight of birth gore, or get too caught up in the moment to remember to take photos.
But even if your partner is a consummate photographer, there may be a good reason to leave the job to someone else. It’s true many a labouring woman has proven less fascinating to her husband than the machine to which she is hooked up, which, in her hubby’s defence, goes ping and tells him exactly how strong each contraction is. It’s hard to compete with that. Give such a man a camera, and he’ll spend the entire labour fiddling with settings when he should be wiping your brow and massaging your back.
On the other hand, if your partner is a terrible back-massager, giving him a camera might be a good way of getting him out of your hair.
Other mothers delegate photo-taking to the midwife, who hopefully won’t neglect her duties in favour of Art, but the photos are likely to suffer as a result. Basically, anyone who’s in your birth space should be dedicated to their role — partner, doula, child-wrangler — not torn between you and posterity.
Making the choice
I’m not claiming birth photography is for everyone. Some women would feel embarrassed and inhibited by the presence of a camera during labour. Some feel birth is too private and sacred to be recorded. And some prefer the blurriness and mutability of memory to the cold, hard facts of photographic evidence. That’s fine, as long as you’re not put off by people insinuating birth photos are salacious or self-involved.
Honestly, I’m not sure if I’d ever want my labour photographed, although I’d be curious, scientifically speaking, to see if the pain of labour could break through the embarrassment rictus that contorts my face whenever I sense a camera in the vicinity. If so, transition might provide me with the most flattering photos I’ve ever had. Never mind the baby, isn’t that worth a thousand dollars or so?
Sarah Tennant gave birth unphotogenically to Rowan, aged four, and Miles, one. She lives outside Hamilton on an apple orchard.