The incredible highs & lows of documenting childbirth
Technological advances allowing photographers to shoot in poorly lit environments have helped propel this special niche. Birth photographers witness joy and love in its purest expression, but they also need to be prepared to face death and grief. Sophia Hawkes surveyed four photographers to reveal the special skills required to succeed, as well as how to create your own signature style.
Brisbane-based photographer, Selena Rollason has captured over 150 births during the eight years she’s been working in the area. She highlights what’s at the heart of the genre. “Childbirth is one of the most beautiful, yet most intimate moments in a couple’s life – and a photographer needs to appreciate how much of an honour it is to be invited behind those closed doors.” Respect is your gift, and message. Your epithet. “At the end of the day, it’s a privilege to be invited (and allowed) into the birth suite, and it’s critical that photographers respect their place in the birth space,” Rollason says.
Sarah Widnyana, who’s based in Sydney, is also aware of the rare privilege it is to photograph births. “We are invited into the most vulnerable and sacred spaces for a family,” she says. Adelaide birth photographer, Victoria Berekmeri has her eyes wide open to this. “You need a particular affinity for working with women at their most vulnerable, and knowing how to hold the birth space for a woman, no matter how she chooses to deliver her child,” she says.
Capturing babies as they open their eyes to a world outside of their mother is capturing what many call a miracle. Even if it ended here, it would be an honourable task. But it goes further, as you become an agent of healing, and integration. Lacey Barratt, a renowned birth photographer in Melbourne acknowledges this. “Birth shapes women...I’m sometimes a woman’s only form of continuity of care. The images I provide are sometimes the only debrief she will get. In a world where emphasis is placed on babies, and mothers are seen as merely vessels, we forget about the woman. We forget to ask her, ‘Do you feel safe and loved and supported right now?’ We don’t ask ‘How do you feel about your birth’, and because no one asks, she never tells, and that trauma or joy sits and sits and sits until it festers and manifests in other ways,” Barratt says.
Preparing for worst-case scenario
Birth photography is as real as it gets. As a birth photographer, you are there at the threshold of life itself, but with death looming over your shoulder. “Birth is one of the most commonly photographed scenes where both life and death are options that are on the table,” Widnyana says. Rollason says that although you can try to be prepared for the worst, when faced with this scenario she’s realised you can’t plan for it. “I’ve seen many traumatic births, and it’s nerve-wracking every time. While I’ve never lost a client or a baby during birth, this nearly happened in 2017 when a client’s uterus ruptured and the baby ended up in her abdomen. To discuss it still leaves me shaking,” she says.
It also doesn’t get any more intimate than this, and a labouring woman is at her most vulnerable. Thus trust is crucial and is built with compassionate communication and boundary setting. “Being well tuned in to your client is really crucial,” Widnyana says. “Communication in the broad sense too, not just verbal. The ability to read body language and know when you can step forward into the birthing woman’s space and when to take a step back and let her be.” Communicating effectively with family members and birthing staff is also imperative, she adds, as you need to ensure you’re not getting in the way, but it also leads to a more efficient shoot.
Births may encompass all emotions from joy to grief. Barratt quickly realised that being a birth photographer also encompasses dealing with death. During the first birth she attended, a mother and child nearly died. By being educated on emergencies and worst-case scenarios, she can better process possible complications. “You can plan for the worst-case scenario by not being naive, understanding that things can take a turn, and understanding that where there is life, there too, is death. Learn about death literacy, learn about language and how that affects families, and learn about trauma and the process that comes with it,” Barratt suggests. “Anything is game when it comes to birth. Nothing is off limits,” she says. Because naivety has no place in this field, Barratt emphasises the importance of having a solid support network to call on when a birth ends in tragedy. “Find a local doula, midwife, or other birth photographer that you can debrief with. Find a community and lean on them hard for days where you feel completely broken and like you can’t go on. Believe me, you will eventually need to call on them.”
Likewise, Berekmeri knows the heart-wrenching situations working in the field can present. Through her work with the volunteer organisation Heartfelt, she’s encountered heart-breaking events. Heartfelt consist of professional photographers from Australia and New Zealand “dedicated to giving the gift of photographic memories to families who have experienced still-births, premature births or have children with serious and terminal illnesses”. Shooting for Heartfelt, Berekmeri learnt that in order to photograph birth, one needs a great deal of sensitivity and compassion both for oneself and others. “Despite how hard it can be to photograph in these moments, you know the value of what you’re doing will be worth more than anything to a family who have to leave a hospital empty handed, heartbroken, or perhaps traumatised,” Berekmeri says.
A special skill-set
Births are usually messy, loud, and unpredictable, with limited space to move around in. Then there’s the lack of control over lighting, and often working in a dimly lit environment, especially if shooting a home birth. Berekmeri as well as Rollason stresses the importance of being proficient in low light photography before setting foot in the birthing room. “The birth suite is currently one of the most difficult environments to photograph in. We shoot in extremely low light, in a room with healthcare professionals and medical equipment. It’s often quite dark and any lighting present is mixed in terms of temperature and intensity. This creates some very interesting technical challenges,” Rollason says.
It can be very tricky to predict what will happen during labour. Widnyana says you can lessen the blow of this challenge. “When you understand the physiological process of birth, you are able to predict moments before they arise and set yourself up to best capture them,” she says. Barratt has developed a close understanding of the “fast moving narrative” present at times and takes it a step further. “I believe that every birth photographer needs to possess the empathy and basic, yet fundamental, skills of a doula. This means we need to understand how birth works, physiologically as well as emotionally. We should know the dynamics of birth inside and out, and how every single step, breath, and movement may affect the birthing mother.” Moreover, she knows what each family’s birth plan is.
Additionally, there’s a huge personal sacrifice and toll on family life as you’re on call 24/7 for weeks on end, and it’s impossible to predict how long labour will last, unless you’re shooting a planned caesarean, of course. “We leave our own children sleeping in their beds in the middle of the night to sneak out and photograph another child’s arrival into our world,” says Widnyana. No wonder she calls birth photography “a beast unlike no other”. Adding to this beast’s strength is the fact that you often have to function well despite being sleep-deprived. “Having the skill and proficiency to photograph with minimal sleep for substantially long periods of time can be quite an endeavour,” says Berekmeri.
To do this type of work, one has to familiarise oneself with, and be skilful in dealing with, the hospital environment and staff. This includes knowing and adhering to policies and procedures, as well as honouring the code of confidentiality. Berekmeri says that to achieve the best outcome, a photographer has to work with and around the staff. She adds that conducting your work professionally includes obtaining approval from staff before photographing on the day, and refraining from interfering with your client’s process of birth, as well as being careful to check personal biases, fears, and avoid judgements. Rollason’s advice on how to adhere to these practices is to “have strong people and customer service skills that can assist with gaining your client’s trust and ensure positive collaboration with healthcare professionals”.
The Australian Institute of Professional Photography (AIPP) has a birth photography section in their code of professional practice which accredited birth photographers have to adhere to. The first point there reflects the sentiments expressed by all interviewed: “I will reserve judgement, accepting women, the diverse decisions they make and the path they’ve chosen to bring their baby into the world.” However, issues do arise. In September last year, The Royal Brisbane and Women’s Hospital placed a ban on photographers, including family members, operating at their facility. This ban came about following a number of incident, including the sharing of a video of a birth where midwives were tagged without consent, and where a professional photographer was asked by staff to stop photographing during an emergency, but refused.
Rollason, with the support of AIPP, is working to lifting this ban. “I have met with the hospital twice now and a draft agreement for birth photographers has been established. This document outlines the expectations and requirements for birth photographers operating at the hospital, including things like the need for public liability insurance and a willingness to cease photographing (when asked) in an emergency. This document will be an Australian first for such a large hospital and will assist with securing the long term survival of the birth photography genre. It reaches a middle ground between full regulation of the genre and zero management which is high risk for the medical facilities,” Rollason explains.
Capturing the unique
Coverage of a ‘typical’ birth will usually involve photographing the following elements: labour, connection, crowning, first meet, first latch or bottle feed, first cuddle, dad’s first cuddle, and, if time permits, newborn check and measurements.
So, how do you create your own signature style when the elements to be covered are usually the same? “Our jobs as birth photographers is to tailor what is an everyday occurrence to be intimately personal,” Barratt says. “The only way to do this is by asking your client about her family, what they like, their personalities, etc. so you can know when to click the shutter to make that experience personally theirs, and not ‘just another birth story’,” she says. Rollason too gets to know the birthing couple beforehand, and, in particular, she finds out what has led them to this point in their lives. “This allows me to see their birth story from their perspective and photograph it in accordance with their life journey. It makes it special and unique to them in the end,” she says. Rollason knows how to keep it fresh and extraordinary. “I’m constantly thinking outside the box about what interesting things I can capture.”
Barratt says it’s the moments between the key events that create uniqueness. Find the moments of transition as they are full of symbology. “These images move us from one part of the story to another, creating flow and evoking emotion. When you are able to document mum’s first step after birth, it’s telling a story, that this woman is taking her first step as a re-birthed woman, a new mother, and a completely new human. It is crucial and symbolic to document. While many may not understand that symbol, the mother will. She will remember how her legs were jelly when she took that first step. She will remember the adrenaline pulsing through her body as she mustered up the last bit of her strength to move from location of birth to her resting place. This is the story and elements we should be striving to tell in birth photography...not the perineum stretching,” she says.
Widnyana agrees that it’s the emotional impact that sets a birth image apart. “Families can display the entire range of emotions during birth which makes each image unique,” she says. Widnyana believes it’s her own births guiding her in the pursuit of these emotive moments. “I find I gravitate towards moments in birth that I myself resonated with in my own births, which helps to define my style. I like to capture cropped-in moments where the details are sharp and visible,” Widnyana says. Berekmeri echoes these sentiments stating that each birth carries with it a distinct atmosphere you need special skills to be able to capture. “Having empathy, insight, and wisdom are as crucial components to capturing birth as having the technical camera skills,” she says. She’s also discovered a clear division in style between photographers using flash and those who don’t. “Natural light photographers will have a distinct style variation compared to those who incorporate bounced flash,” Berekmeri says.
Rollason reminds photographers that there are no second chances when it comes to covering a birth, so it’s crucial to build policies around backing up and gear redundancy into one’s workflow. “Thankfully, due to my strict policies around this, I’ve never had to learn that lesson the hard way. However, I have had equipment fail on me during a shoot and batteries die, and memory cards corrupt. If you aren’t prepared to buy at least two of everything, then you really need to find another genre to photograph,” Rollason concludes.
Despite the challenges explored here, birth photography appears to be a fundamentally rewarding specialisation, and the skills required go well beyond competent camera craft. “I’ve learned to let women express themselves without judgement, to simply validate what they are feeling. I have learned that the images I provide women help heal bad births and prolong the high of a good birth,” Barratt says. “I have learned that birth photographers are a necessity to some women’s aspect of their mental health, to help process and release,” Barratt says.
Widnyana has learnt the importance of self-care, to truly look after herself. “Managing my business and my own family while being on-call and surviving off little sleep after photographing a birth is a lot to have on my plate. Part of taking care of myself is charging a premium price to reflect the toll this job takes on my health and my family, and to ensure my business is sustainable,” she says. Berekmeri too has learnt how to support herself by having appropriate people to debrief with after particularly stressful births. She’s also learnt not to take on other peoples’ issues. “Don’t take things personally. In fact, be as impartial and professional as you can so you tell a true version of events to your client and their family,” she advices.
Birth photography is a highly demanding field of photography and you’ll need a deep respect for women and knowledge of the birthing process to be successful. Your vulnerability, compassion, and communication skills will be of utter importance as you tune into each birth’s uniqueness and capture moments at the threshold of life and death. If you’ve got what it takes, you’ll be well rewarded, and become so much more than a photographer for the women you meet.
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