Birth Photography: Reclaiming our story

Having pictures taken of my daughter’s birth was the last thing on my mind when I was preparing for the big day. I concerned myself with all the details – which sheets I would use on the bed, what I wanted to eat and drink, and how I was going to manage the intensity of the contractions.

It was later, after the excitement had subsided and I had a tiny newborn nestled in my arms, that I asked my husband to see the pictures. 

There weren’t very many; a few shots of my labour support team and some postpartum procedures, taken by my amazing doula. Several that had been taken of the actual birth were deleted, as my mother worried they were too graphic. I felt sad about the lack of documentation, and wished I’d been more explicit about pictures that I wanted. 

I’m not alone in this, as many women report feeling regret over lack of pictures during childbirth. “We had so savoured the grainy photos of the birth of our daughter that had been captured by my husband and our birth doula,” says Ottawa resident Julia Nichol. Julia knew she wanted to document her second child’s birth, and hired a birth photographer to do a more professional job. 

More parents are choosing to invite birth photographers into the labour room, to capture a moment in time when intense emotions make it hard to remember certain details. Labouring mothers are in their own world, intensely focused on the waves of contractions; hours can go by in a blur.

“I also believe in, and hope to support, normalizing birth and offering visuals for women to hold something true in their mind when preparing for their own labours,” says Julia. “I find it so unfortunate how labour and birth are sensationalized on television, and hope to replace it with different, truer images.”

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Depicting birth in a positive light is an essential part of normalizing a largely medicalized time in women’s lives. Childbirth, after all, is the number one reason why women are admitted to hospital. We tend to associate hospitals with illness and death, so it can sometimes be hard for women to find comfort and safety while laboring in a maternity ward.

Greg and Julie Linton struggled to find that kind of comfort in the days and weeks following the birth of their son Henry. While Julie’s labour progressed very well at home, the moment of birth presented a significant challenge – Henry’s shoulders became stuck (a condition called “shoulder dystocia.”) Henry was transferred to hospital with the help of emergency services, and thus followed many days of waiting and worrying while Henry spent time at the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario (Henry is a now a happy and healthy one year-old.)

“I couldn't imagine getting through those first few days and months without our photographer and her photos," says Julie. "She held us up and celebrated with us afterwards. These beautiful photographs have reminded me time and time again to remember the whole birth story, and not to just focus on the one part that went wrong.” Even in the stressful moments, there was so much strength and beauty to be found.

With the popularity of birth photography on the rise, many parents-to-be are wondering if hiring a photographer for the big day is right for them.

“Some people likely believe birth to be too intimate to want to share it with the world,” says Julia Nichol. “I see that as a personal choice and completely respect both points of view. In my case, I did not feel this way at all.”

Greg Linton agrees. “People might think the photographer is going to ask you to do certain things during the birth, like trying to pose,” he says. “Being the dad, I was aware of our photographer, but at no time did I change my actions because of it. I did what I had to do for my wife and baby, and our photographer worked around us.”

Other worries women have are related to their bodies and privacy. Some women struggle with body image issues, or believe that birth photography is focused on capturing the moment when the head is being born. “It’s so not about that one shot,” says Kim Cameron from Breathe In Photography. “Of course we will get those shots if that’s what the woman has asked for. But there is so much more to a birth than that – there is an entire story to tell.”

And what a story it can be. I’ve created my own version of “on the night you were born” with both my girls. We scroll through the pictures, and marvel at the intensity of my expression, or laugh at the picture of the dog snoozing in the corner. Every child is fascinated by the story of their birth, and I love showing them how it all unfolded.

As my girls grow into women, I know that their birth pictures will show them the positive side of birth – the strength and beauty that we can witness as a new child comes into this world. I hope that this reduces any fears they may have about childbirth, and overrides what I see to be society’s negative understanding of birth. 

The message we receive is that women are to fear childbirth; we are told to distance ourselves from this process by removing our “selves” from the picture. By checking out of the labour, both physically or emotionally, there is the possibility we miss a key transformative moment in our lives.

Birth photographers are working to put women back in the picture, as the navigators of their own journey. Through these pictures, women are reclaiming their role at the centre of the story - one un-posed moment at a time.