The Bond of Midwifery and Art
by Annette Wilson

[Editor’s note: This article first appeared in Midwifery Today, Issue 117, Spring 2016.]

A great photograph is one that fully expresses what one feels, in the deepest sense, about what is being photographed.

—Ansel Adams

In recent years, birth photography has become quite popular, and mainstream media has caught on. In the past month alone, birth photos have appeared on websites for People magazine, The Huffington Post and Today, to name just a few. This is excellent for midwifery! The idiom “a picture is worth a thousand words” begins to explain the importance of birth photography for midwifery. There is a valuable bond between the two. Like Ansel Adams’ quote, midwifery offers a birth photographer an avenue to express her deep admiration for gentle birth through art. Through the positive birth imagery produced, birth photography is helping to normalize gentle birth and empower women to choose midwifery care.

midwife working with birthing mom

Birth photographers, like midwives, are called to the work. At some point, perhaps through a personal experience, birth greatly affects and moves a photographer to use her skills in this way. It is intense work with difficult hours, and photographers frequently have to explain the importance of their work to potential clients: “A birth photographer is similar to a wedding photographer, documenting an important life event.” “Your partner could be in the photos, too, focusing on you and your baby instead of behind the camera.” “The lighting at a birth is challenging, and it takes experience to capture good photos.” However, the importance of their work goes beyond documenting a family’s birth or even creating memories to cherish for years to come. Birth photography, especially now during its renaissance, is producing a mountain of positive birth imagery—something that has been lacking in our culture, and it has become a major contributor to the movement of gentle birth and midwifery.

Birth photographers document all types of births, and homebirths attended by midwives make up a large portion of their work. These images are incredibly powerful and beautiful. Explore any issue of Midwifery Today and you will see countless examples. In this issue, we showcase the International Association of Professional Birth Photographers (IAPBP) 2016 Competition winners (see pages 36–38). These images will definitely make you feel! The more that people have an opportunity to view such positive imagery, the less of a mystery birth becomes, especially homebirth. Midwives are often the subject in the photos, too, whether it is their gentle hands helping to guide a baby into a mother’s arms or a photo of a midwife examining a newborn. As birth photography becomes more mainstream, it helps to make gentle birth the norm and inspires families to consider midwives and homebirths as safe options.

Gentle birth can empower mothers, and viewing powerful birth photography can inspire all women. Witnessing the strength of a woman giving birth moves others to believe in themselves and their own bodies. A frequent photography contributor to Midwifery Today, Monet Moutrie discusses birth beautifully on her Facebook page with her photography. In a recent post, she writes, “When a woman gives birth, she finds her body open…and her soul.” (Moutrie 2016) Monet and her photography partner, Jennifer Mason, started a new website, Birth Becomes Her, to share birth photography from around the world. They hope to inspire photographers and encourage parents because “birth is a process of strength, of determination and of beauty.” Monet and Jenn “seek to show every part of the journey.” (Moutrie and Mason 2016) This telling of the whole story is another wonderful aspect of birth photography: there’s no sugar coating or sterilizing birth—just raw images, including all the pain, joy, bodily fluids, placentas, umbilical cords, beauty and truth. The realness of birth photography is a powerful reminder to women of their own innate strength. It touches something deep inside and moves us to want to choose a positive gentle birth for ourselves.

Even though birth photography is helping to normalize midwifery, it too, like midwifery, has its cultural challenges. For instance, mainstream media may be showing more birth photography, but it still habitually gets it wrong. The Today Show created a slideshow of birth photography from the IAPBP competition, titled “What Giving Birth Looks Like,” and they placed words on various images, including the word “scary” over the en-caul unassisted twin waterbirth photo by Robin Baker (see page 37) (Today 2016). In a Facebook post, Robin describes how the birth “was anything but scary. It was precipitous (very fast), serene, peaceful and filled with much joy.” “We asked them [Today] to remove my image or change the word to ‘rare,’ and they declined. It’s very disappointing.” (Baker 2016) Yes, birth can sometimes be scary, but not in this case. It definitely seemed to be more about sensationalizing birth. This is understandably disappointing, but the cultural tide may also be turning. Robin writes, “On the bright side, the image has gone completely viral and almost all of the feedback is positive. I’ve received countless positive stories of families inspired to research their birth options. It’s also being used as a teaching tool at birth conferences.” (Baker 2016)

There is another challenge common to birth photographers as well as midwives and doulas. Midwifery Today photography contributor Leilani Rogers has experienced at least a dozen times not being let into the operating room to document a cesarean birth because of the incorrect assumption about photographers endangering “the sterility of the environment” and being “a hindrance should there be an emergency situation.” I like to think of birth photographers, like midwives, as people who are extraordinarily respectful of birth and know full well never to disturb a birthing mother or get in the way in emergencies. Leilani specifically describes an upsetting experience when her client literally threatened to leave the hospital if they didn’t let Leilani back into the operating room. “She began unhooking herself from the monitor, the IV, etc., and the anesthesiologist would not budge. He [couldn’t have cared] less about her. Here she had given up her desire for a homebirth, and he couldn’t grant her this small wish to have her birth photographed. She said out loud, ‘It’s the only happy thing left in this situation.’” (Rogers, personal communication) It is very heartbreaking that this choice was taken from the mother. On a positive note, Leilani recently photographed a couple cesarean births, and there are many other examples of photographers getting into the operating room at the request of their clients.

As birth photography becomes more widely seen and accepted, it will continue to help normalize gentle birth and inspire families to choose their own journey, which could very well include midwives.

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Annette Wilson has been Midwifery Today’s graphic designer since Midwifery Today magazine issue 105. She has degrees in graphic design, natural resources management and English and loves using her design skills for meaningful work that she’s passionate about, including birth, social change and environmental education. Annette got into design through photography, and working with birth photographers has been an enjoyable part of her job. She hopes to one day photograph a birth. Annette lives in beautiful Oregon with her daughter.


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