Birth photography is booming, and we are seeing more and more birth photos of all varieties circulating online. Jenni Goldman, an incredibly talented photographer and Indie Birth Trustee, has come along to some Indie Births, and her photos are truly awe inspiring. They have created dialogue and discussion, and have served as educational tools for thousands of people already (and we’re just getting started!). This is all to say that I believe that birth photography has the potential to be very powerful as we reshape what birth looks like, and share that image publicly in a way that really hasn’t been done in the past. Birth photography is political – we can analyze and understand these photos as visual sociologists (isn't that fancy? well that's what you're doing!). Birth photos are a way that we can learn, teach each other, get better at what we do, and gain a new perspective on what birth does look like and what it could look like. I think it is crucial that we share more photos of undisturbed, un-interfered with and mother centered births so that someday THOSE will be the norm, and so that people all over the world can see what is possible.
As with any medium, birth photography can also spread misinformation, or a vision of birth that is something other than ideal, and I often find that the discussion happening around these photos is lacking, usually because everyone is afraid to hurt the mother or midwife or doctor’s feelings. We have to remember that birth photos mean one thing to the parents and their friends, but in the public sphere, it is no longer about that individual, it is about what the photo represents, and what it means as a representation of the larger culture of childbirth – if that isn’t what you want, then please think twice about sharing your birth photos publicly!
So here is a short list of things I look for or think about when I see a birth photo or a slideshow of birth photos. This isn’t about judging anyone’s birth choices, or any photographers’ framing of the scene, it is about developing our tools of analysis next time a birth photo slideshow shows up in your facebook feed so that we can help each other move towards a world full of better births.
1) How many hands are in the photo?
This is one of the first things I notice, especially for close up photos of the actual moment of birth (how exciting!!!). There should really be one pair of hands, maybe two in the vicinity of the baby, and those are the mother’s hands, and perhaps her partner’s hands giving additional support to the mother, or catching the baby if the mom is in a position which makes that difficult for her. It should be a very rare occasions that a midwife or doctor actually needs to “catch” the baby at all. I’ve been sort of flabbergasted by the responses I’ve gotten from friends and family when I’ve told them (or shown them photos!) that most births I’ve been to have been births where the mother receives her own baby. This should not be shocking or surprising, and is one of the reasons that photos depicting mother’s “catching” are so powerful. Changing the image of a doctor delivering a baby to a mother receiving her own baby is one of the simplest and most powerful changes we can hope to make, because from that point of understanding, people are ready to start taking responsibility.
2) Who is at the center of the photo?
This is a basic question universal to analyzing all kinds of different cultural artifacts (movies, advertising, short stories and novels, etc, etc). The person or object at the center of the photo is really what the photo is about – they are literally the focus in photography. This can be simple, as in, who is in the middle of the photo, or more subtle, as in, who in the photo are we supposed to be looking at. Is it the mom? The baby? The nurse/midwife/doctor? The partner? The fetal heart rate machine? In a slideshow, the photographer will likely be taking photos of the other people involved to capture the essence of the day, but I think it is a great idea to ask yourself, who was in the center the MOST? And how often is the photographer able to photograph JUST the family. The mother, partner and baby should be the focus of almost all of the photographs. If I had to pick a percentage, I’d say that 95% of someone’s birth photos should be of only the family, and it should not be difficult to get photos without the “care providers” in them. That is a good sign that everyone involved (including the photographer) understands that the birth experience must be led by mother and baby. Everyone is there to serve them, and they have all hopefully checked their own egos at the door.
3) How are the people in the photo relating to each other – is someone above or below?
When there is more than one person in the photo, this is a great question to ask yourself. How are these people relating to one another? Do they look like equals? Is one person literally or figuratively looking down on another? Is the photo skewed/tilted to make it appear as if they are even, when in reality (just tilt your head to make the angle correct) one person is towering over the other menacingly? Does anyone look scared? Angry? Impatient? Is the mother looking joyfully at the fetal heart rate monitor, completely disconnected from her own sense of how her baby is doing? If I had a penny for every time I saw a truly beautiful birth photo that on further inspection showed a very uncomfortable, or disturbing, or possibly aggressive situation, I’d have a whole lot of pennies. Who is in charge? Who has the power? Where is the mother’s attention? Is the physical space being treated as the sacred space it should be or are people loitering, laughing, playing cards, watching TV? Look beyond the aesthetic beauty and quality of the photo and probe a little deeper.
4) What technology is present in the photo, where is it positioned, and what is its role?
This seems pretty self explanatory. If it isn’t, or you are just learning about some of this stuff, find a birth slideshow you love, and make a list of all the different objects you see as part of the process – the birth pool, an oxygen tank, a hand held mirror, bulb syringe, IV bag, etc, etc. Write down everything from low-tech to high-tech. Then look at another slideshow and do the same thing again. Start getting familiar with what technologies you see in which birth settings. Research why they are there or may be being used. Are there things that show up over and over again, even in homebirths, that aren’t evidence based? This brings up so many questions, and hopefully provokes the viewer to do some research.
5) What ISN’T shown in the photo? What has been cropped out, what has been censored?
This is a great question, especially when the midwife or doctor is promoting photos of births they have been to. The other part of this question is about the “realness” of the photos, beyond just the family’s modesty and preference for what has been released to the world. Are all the photos just lovely portraits during labor, and after the baby is born? Are the parents “posing” or are the photos reflections of what labor and birth is really like. Not everyone wants to share photos that are bloody, messy, or nude, but there should still be photos that show the raw intensity of labor, otherwise, the whole slideshow is just a strange posed photoshoot, with very little use when it comes to reeducating people about the birth process.
What do you think about birth photography? Have you ever hired a birth photographer? Do you have any favorite birth photos you’ve seen?