The true beauty of Birth Photography
In every industry, there are “buzzwords” and trends, whether we follow them or not. My thoughts on this in regard to the photography industry are quite straightforward - I don’t like it. Photography is, to me at least, an art form; whatever it is you’re shooting, you should be pouring your whole self into it, not worrying about which shots are on trend right now or what will perform best on your social media or website.
A word I’ve noticed cropping up a lot in photography is “raw”. It’s no longer enough to take great pictures; well composed, well shot, with interesting light or textures - we now have to capture “rawness” - which for the most part (to my uncultured eyes at least) appears to be people looking unhappy or crying. Now, don’t get me wrong, I love an emotional image as much as the next person. Couples often cry during their wedding vows, parents sometimes get a little overwhelmed during impromptu cuddles with their children, siblings can show sudden tenderness during a family shoot. All of these are moments worth capturing - in fact I’d go so far as to say they are essential if as a photographer you have any interest in the storytelling element of your work. My issue is when a photographer tries to force or emulate "rawness” into their images because they think it will somehow make them ‘better’.
Last year, I conceived and began working on a personal photography project which I am eventually planning to have published. For the project to be successful, I knew that I would have to take a very critical look at the way I shoot pictures, because of the extremely sensitive and vulnerable nature of my subjects. I started to think about that word, raw; I knew that my dislike of it was down to both its popularity as a current trend, and also due to the way that some photographers try to portray it. I wanted to learn to capture rawness, but I didn’t want to fall into the trap of subconsciously posing my clients to give the appearance of emotion, as I think some people do.
I needed to find a photographic niche where there was no posing, no styling, no second chances. True, raw, emotionally vulnerable photography. I needed to photograph childbirth.
Obviously, this was not going to be as easy as asking the nearest person to model for me! So I was completely shocked and surprised when, just minutes after I put out a call to action via my social media feeds, I received a message from Natalie, an expectant mother booked to deliver her baby at my local hospital. As soon as we started chatting, I knew that I’d found my ‘dream’ client; relaxed, open, already experienced at giving birth and on my wavelength when it came to the type of images that I knew I would love to make.
Luckily for me, she felt exactly the same way. We met for a chat (which ended up being several hours long) and by the time I left it felt as though we’d already known each other for ages. We discussed everything from our own previous birth experiences, photography in general, life, marriage and our families…I asked how comfortable she was with “full frontal” images, what she would do if she got fed up with me being in the room, and the story she wanted to tell through her birth photos. There was an instant connection and we shared similar views on many things. I was so excited to be part of this incredible woman’s birth experience - especially as, being her fourth baby, she thought it would probably be her final pregnancy and birth.
There was just one small issue; with this being my first birth booking, I had already planned and booked my holidays for the year…and because I’m usually the unluckiest person in the world, the due date fell right in the middle of my Easter holiday! Natalie was totally unperturbed by this; we’d talked about her previous labours and how she usually went far enough over her due dates to require induction. It seemed it could all still work out.
For the final months of her pregnancy, we exchanged messages; she kept me updated after all of her maternity appointments and we spoke while I was on holiday. The enormity of what I had agreed to do started to make me anxious, as I realised that missing a phone call, being too far away from the hospital or even being ill would deny this special family of pictures they were looking forward to so much. After my holiday, we began to speak even more regularly - I now know this is the only way that birth photography can work. Even though I imagined myself purely as a bystander, someone whose presence was neither here nor there, I realised that this was wrong. A family who books a birth photographer need their photographer to show up - not just on the day itself but beforehand too, by being as available as possible.
Two days before the birth, Natalie sent me a message to say she thought her labour was starting spontaneously, despite an induction being booked at the end of the week. As soon as I got home, I packed not just my camera bag, but a hospital bag of snacks and drinks too, suddenly aware that if they were in this for the long haul, I was too. The following evening I had met a friend for an impromptu business shoot when my phone pinged…it was happening. Contractions were becoming regular, and Natalie and her husband were getting ready to head to the hospital. She told me to stay put until she felt things were more established, but I went to bed with my clothes, bag and car keys ready to go at a moments notice anyway. When my alarm woke me in the morning, I instantly wondered how she was and whether I’d missed it all.
By 9am, we had decided I would make my way to the birth centre once she was settled and had been examined, but just a few minutes later my phone rang. “I think you should come now” - I panicked…I knew straight away by her voice that her labour was progressing much faster than any of us had anticipated. My heart was in my mouth as I drove to the hospital; at every red traffic light I unzipped my bag and double, triple and quadruple checked that I had all my batteries and memory cards! However, as the midwife welcomed me into Natalie and husband Andy’s room, all of my panic, nervousness and adrenaline slipped away and the realisation of just how special this was really hit me. Natalie was in the middle of a contraction when I arrived, so I said a quick hello to Andy and then concentrated on getting my camera set up.
I was worried about awkwardness; labour is intense and amazing and unexpected but there can be huge amounts of “downtime” too - what was I, a complete stranger, going to do while this wonderful couple got on with welcoming their baby into the world? It turned out I needn’t have worried at all…not once did I feel out of place, or uncomfortable. I told them both that I would leave at any point they asked me to, or would stop taking photographs it was getting on their nerves. They laughed; they were so relaxed and comfortable that they knew neither of those things would happen.
My own birth experiences were very quick, in hospital and at home. Natalie’s labour was very similar; I knew there wouldn’t be much time before her baby arrived so I tried to make sure I captured some of her relaxed times as well as the contractions. It was a privilege to watch the relationship between her and Andy - the room was quiet and calm and the love and connection between them in those quiet moments was just beautiful.
A mere fifteen minutes after my arrival, Natalie asked to enter the birth pool and from that point things moved quickly.
As Natalie and Andy’s baby boy was born, I had to put my camera down for a moment as the emotion of what I’d just witnessed, and captured, suddenly hit me. As I choked back tears, a midwife smiled at me and I knew that I had to pursue this experience in my photography again and again. As I said, my own labours were very fast and intense, and I suddenly realised how little of them I could actually recall. My third child was born at home after several years of invasive fertility treatment…a huge part of my birth plan was to have lots of photographs taken but as my husband had to deliver him I didn’t get a single one. Birth is magical and beautiful - even more so when you’re not the one in labour! I saw Baby Theodore before his mum and dad did, and not only that but I got to photograph the whole thing for them. My heart was full.
I stayed at the hospital for about an hour after the birth, to make sure I captured some of the ‘afterglow’ of Natalie’s beautiful, peaceful labour as she and Andy got to know their newest son. On my way home, I thought again about what had originally driven me to pursue this as an experience - rawness. I knew that these images were the rawest I’d ever taken, perhaps the most raw I ever would take because by being inexperienced, I arrived at this birth without any expectation or plan. I was lucky that from a photographic perspective, things were easy…it was daytime, the room was bright and light with large windows, there wasn’t much artificial light, and there was space for everyone to move around. From a labour perspective, things were also straightforward; Natalie was experienced enough to understand and listen to her body, and she was also incredibly brave and strong when it came to birthing her baby. I knew that in the future, these things may not be quite so easy. Birth rarely goes to plan, and neither do hospital admissions. My next experience photographing birth could be very different; a small delivery room in the middle of the night with a complicated birth would produce very different images.
And that’s the key thing about real rawness, and the true beauty of birth photography. These images are not mine; they are only for Natalie and Andy and their family. Truly raw photography means that as a photographer, you leave your ego at the door - you don’t worry about your aesthetic, or social media engagement, or what’s “cool” when it comes to editing. You serve your client and make pictures just for them, because of all the shoots that can be re-done, childbirth is not one of them.
Natalie and Andy received all of the edited images within 24 hours of Theodore’s birth, because again, this was all about them. I was so relieved and elated when I heard their feedback - I even received a message from one of their family members to say how happy everyone was. I was completely emotionally and physically exhausted afterwards, and it was worth it a thousand times over. If I could, I would only ever photograph births.
Obviously, I would love to do this all over again, and again and again…I would have loved images of myself in labour, something which has been echoed by many mothers I’ve spoken to. In a ‘good’ birth, they can be beautiful memories to look back on. And even in a ‘bad’ or traumatic birth experience, there is evidence to show that reviewing reports or images can aid a mother’s recovery.
Finally, my heartfelt thanks have to go to Natalie, Andy and Theodore Patterson, for being the most wonderful family I could ever have wished to meet. Your kindness and bravery allowed me to experience something I could never have dreamed of, and I’ll remember it, and you forever. And also, the incredible midwives and staff at the Royal Derby Hospital, for being welcoming, understanding and amazing.
If you’d like to discuss birth photography with me, either for yourself or just to find out more about it, please do drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org. My packages can include maternity, birth and newborn photography and start from £850. I would love to hear from you if you feel that these are the type of memories you’d like to make yourself.