You never forget your first birth – the excitement, the anticipation, constantly checking the phone to see if there’s a sign that she’s in labour…
As a doula, I attended my very first birth in 2005. I was filled with such awe and honour as I witnessed not only the birth of a baby, but a mother and father too. Along with my excitement came some anxiety – I was worried about doing a good enough job for them, so they’d be happy about their decision to invite me into this sacred, very personal space.
Fast forward to now, many photographers are taking their first steps into this space too. The rise of birth photography has been welcomed by many, including the vast number of excited photographers who are super keen to capture as many births as they can. But sadly, with this rapid growth there has been a price – stories have begun rolling in about problematic, over zealous birth photographers, who have been causing tension in the birth room.
Its not all bad news – some women have had wonderful, amazing experiences. But the negative side that I have been hearing about is the reason for me writing this article.
Being Great At Photography Doesn’t Automatically Make You Great At Birth Photography
Something important to bear in mind if you’re an aspiring birth photographer is that just because you are a photographer, it doesn’t mean you’ll always make a great birth photographer. A doula, Melanie Fogarty, says: “They need to have the right energy I believe – not just think that because they are a photographer they have the right energy to do birth photography. I don’t like ‘spectators’ who want to come along to birth because they think it’s ‘fun’ – they usually don’t know how to respect a woman’s birthing space. They need to respect that it is not about them at all – yes the woman had hired them to take photos – but she should not be disturbed in any way by a photographer.”
While women may not remember exactly what went on at their birth, they will always remember how they felt. The people who are present at a birth will impact the energy of a room and how a birthing mother felt. It is CRUCIAL that if you want to do birth photography, you understand some basics about the physiology of a woman in labour. I am not talking about just understanding how a baby is born – but what a mother-to-be really needs, how hormones work in labour and why those hormones work best when they are undisturbed.
Birth Photography Is Not All About The Shot – It’s About The Woman
When you work in birth photography, you need to ask yourself, “Am I providing a service that best serves and respects the mother and her experience, or my own needs for ‘the’ shot?”
Lael Stone, a fellow birth attendant and birth educator, runs birth workshops for practitioners – be it natural therapists, photographers or other – anyone who works with pregnant and labouring women. I highly recommend all health/birth professionals attend. She says: “The delicate hormonal system that is in play when a women is in labour can very easily be thrown off course when a woman experiences interruptions and distractions when birthing. Ideally when a woman is in her birthing zone she is in a quiet, dark, warm environment, with minimal talking and a safe energy surrounding her. When we invite other people in to our birthing space it is important that they are clear on how to be at this incredibly heightened time.”
As a photographer, i’m sure one of the first things you’re going to pick up on there is the dark environment comment. Before you even head off to your first birth, it is so very important to have knowledge and be constantly learning about how you can best work in low light environments. It is NEVER appropriate to ask women to switch on lights or move lighting equipment near her during the birth, and especially during that oh so important (and what should be undisturbed) attachment phase right after the birth. It is a deep, intimate time that a woman and her baby will never get back, when the attachment is formed. You MUST not disturb this.
It is your job at all times to be the eyes – the fly on the wall. You are not there for commentary, sympathy, sharing your experiences of yelling for drugs or anything else but to tell the story in pictures. I know it may sound pretty cold and births are pretty exciting, but if you cannot control your emotions and needs at a birth, you can really throw a birth off its tracks when you ignore a birthing woman’s needs. Because your role is not one that provides care or support to the woman, you need to make yourself invisible, because the more people and noise in the room, the more likely a woman can have problems in labour, especially if she’s really doing her best to achieve a normal, physiological childbirth.
There is a reason your cat goes and hides somewhere dark, quiet and safe when she’s in labour. This is the most conducive environment for the hormones of labour, oxytocin, to build up and work at its peak. This is what a labouring woman needs first and foremost, before your shots. Activity, anxiety, stress, talking, questions or bright lights switch her out of that safe, labour hormone state and back into the present environment, and may result in her producing adrenaline. This could mean her labour slows, stalls or results in a host of medical interventions to hurry things along or get the baby born sooner – when its actually the environment stressing out the woman, not her body. It can even go as far as her being told and/or believing that her body has failed her – this can really set up a woman for issues like postnatal depression and anxiety. In most cases, birth is simple when undisturbed, and it becomes complicated when you interfere.
Lael suggests the below recommendations for anyone who is with a woman in labour:
Birth Photography Dont’s When Working With A Woman In Labour
- Never ask questions or talk to a woman when she is having a contraction. She is very busy working with her body.
- Dont turn lights on. We are mammals and as such prefer a dark environment as it is easier to access the primal part of us that governs birth.
- Try not to make idle chit chat. By all means if a labouring woman is up for a chat, go for it, but follow her lead.
- Don’t complain about how tired you might be (especially in the middle of the night) as this amazing woman is the one working really hard and doesn’t want to hear it.
Birth Photography Do’s When Working With A Woman In Labour
- Be aware of crisis points in labour. If a woman is wanting to give natural birth a go and has made this very clear, be aware that at some point she may hit a crisis. This is a time when she needs encouragement and support. If you haven’t been around this before, it can be confronting to witness and the natural instinct is to go and hunt down those drugs. Watch the others in the support team and take their lead and remind this mamma about the amazing inner resources that she has.
- Be aware of your energy. If you are feeling freaked out, anxious, angry, exhausted, scared – then a birthing woman can very easily pick up on it. Part of your job, no matter what you are doing in the birthing room, is to hold a calm open energy for her, so she can get on with the amazing task of birthing her baby. If you do feel any of the above emotions, take a break, go for a walk, have a chat with another support person about how you are feeling.
Birth Photographers Gone Wrong
Sadly, I have heard some pretty awful stories of women’s labours being interfered with, interrupted and even thrown off track by well meaning, but over zealous photographers, and in some cases resulting in them being sent home and an upset mother-to-be – including one birth photographer who rocked up to the birth with a bottle of wine. Its a sad situation because the photographer misses out on a job and the mother has lost the chance at having a beautiful collection of images of her baby’s first moments.
Many of the below recent stories have come from doulas, whose job it is to help create the birthing space for the mother and make sure her process is as uninterrupted as possible – this is why so many doulas are noticing what’s going on. They don’t hate birth photographers at all – some have hired photographers for their own births (or wished they had!), but have been shocked to see this sort of behaviour going on at births. Some doulas didn’t feel comfortable sharing full details so I can’t explain the full extent of how awful some of these experiences have been, however like myself, these doulas really would like to see these issues addressed. By the way – doulas could be great referrers of your work if you have a natural affinity with birthing women.
With that said, here’s some ways to quickly kill your career as a birth photographer:
One doula recalls: “A birth photographer asked if she could turn on the lights to take photos. I said no (because of the risks involved with interrupting the mother – to me it was obviously important not to disturb her at all). But when the baby was born, the photographer turned on background lights in several rooms.” The doula wondered if that led to the lengthy third stage (placenta separation).
Another doula shared that a birth photographer started up with “where’s the drugs?” comments. The doula says, “One other thing bugged me about her… she didn’t seem to honour the space. She was also taking pictures on her iphone, and without actually asking permission and texting them to friends. “I’ll send this to so-and-so, she’ll be so excited!” She even asked me to take one of her on her phone so she could text to friends.”
And finally: “A photographer wanted to practice on me…seemed very keen on watching a birth and did not want to honour my requests for her to leave the room at certain points in time. Lucky I didn’t go ahead. A second photographer wanted all the lights on… if you need to have full lighting to take good photos then you are probably not a good photographer. I’d like to know how many women’s births have been ruined so far by photographers that have interrupted the birthing vibes… I have seen a lot of ‘caesarean photography’ so who knows.”
What Problems Need To Be Overcome For Birth Photographers To Be The Best They Can Be?
Problem: As one doula points out: birth photographers are hired to do a job – take good photos. But without understanding birth, they may focus on taking the shots at all costs.
Solution: Birth photographers MUST attend some sort of birth education class or doula course so they can get an understanding of normal, physiological childbirth. And I am not talking hospital birth education, far from it. When you read my article 9 Reasons To Choose Independent Birth Education, you will understand why you MUST get independent information. A workshop like Lael’s practitioner workshop is ideal and from talks going on, we may see a few more pop up over the country very soon. Keep an eye open. Read as many great birth books as you can – I highly recommend the books featured in our article, Best Birth Books. Please note that even if you do a doula course, that does not mean you can do both roles in one – a woman in labour cannot be effectively supported by a woman who is focused on taking photos and getting good shots. Its important that you make this clear in your own head and any potential clients you service. It may sound appealing to lug the two jobs together, but you must pick one or you will do a birthing woman a great disservice.
Problem: “Birth photographers charge more – even double – than most doulas. So far the handful of times a particular photographer has worked, almost all the births have ended with a caesarean section. I wonder how the women feel about that? Do they realise the impact having another person in the room has on birth? Will they have regrets about getting great photos of a birth experience they didn’t want to have, when a doula may (or may not) have made a difference?”
Solution: I know this is not the kind of thing you want to hear, but it is a common concern held highly by birth professionals. Because of the the way labour works, extra energy, bodies or light in the room can be seen as an interruption of the normal birth process. So its in your very best interests to keep this in mind as you work. How can you make sure you’re not seen or heard? How can you keep your presence at a minimum? How can you best respect the mother’s space and need for space? When a woman is in labour its like being on another planet, and she needs to be left there. If you upset her, she may get snappy or yell or say things she wouldn’t normally. Never take this personally but if she’s asking for you to stop taking photos or to leave, you must respectfully listen and act on this.
Top Tips On Being A Great Birth Photographer
- Communication is KEY. Many problems can be avoided through communication and discussion before the birth about expectations and needs.
- Learn about normal, physiological birth through workshops, courses and books.
- Build a relationship with the mother and her partner. Make sure you visit her in HER home once or twice (so she can feel relaxed and is in her own space – especially if she’s homebirthing) and spend time with her – have a cuppa and a chat to help her feel comfortable with you.
- Read her birth plan/preferences if she has them. They will give you a great insight into the kind of support she wants – but the very best thing to do is to ask and discuss her wishes.
- Attend independent birth classes.
- Watch the documentary, The Business of Being Born.
- Don’t get over anxious about getting the call or missing the birth. Of course, when you do on call work, you need your phone on and close to you at all times, even overnight, but don’t go too crazy. Don’t hound the mother or contact her too much before labour. She is likely getting ‘is the baby there yet?’ texts from all of her friends and family as well, when all she needs is space and time to get into her birthing groove… and relax. If you miss a birth or two, its unfortunate – if you attend a few births chances are you’ll get a super fast one somewhere, but the majority you could have time to drive to another state and back! Don’t rush it.
- Leave the birthing room when asked and clarify well before the birth how she feels about you being present when any medical procedures are being performed, especially internal exams. Be open enough for her to change her mind at the birth.
- Whatever the mother asks of you, respect her decisions. Don’t make her ask twice, she’s in labour and doesn’t need to be dealing with a photographer who wont listen.
- If you don’t know how to work in low lighting, you need to learn how, or not attend births.
- Understand that this is not a 9-5 job. You must be set up and supported for on-call work, because you can’t just leave a birth at 3pm because you need to go get your kids. You’ll have a very unhappy client.
- Don’t ask her to pose! Birth photography should be candid.
- Be committed enough to show up, no matter when the birth happens, 24×7. You can’t decide you’re too tired when she calls you in the middle of the night. She cannot find someone else at that short notice.
- Never make a client feel like you’re rushed, short on time or on a deadline. When you’re with a woman, you’re with her and just her. If you have births close together, your back-up must be arranged so the first woman in labour is not worried about you leaving.
- Births can extremely long and tiring. Wear comfortable clothes and shoes, pack water and snacks, and prepare to be in for the long haul. No matter if the birth takes 12 hours, 18 hours or 24 hours, you need to be committed to the end – the birth and the first feed.
- Where possible, disable any camera noises and invest in good equipment that has low noise and as quiet shutter as you can.
- ALWAYS have your phone on silent and non-vibrating (which can sound like a rocket when vibrating on a hard surface in a quiet room), or ideally off. NEVER take photos on your own phone or share the woman’s images with ANYONE, without her permission (do not ask her at the birth). These are her private photos and usually expose more of her body than she would like strangers to see.
- Be the eyes, tell the story, be calm and be invisible.
- Don’t take anything personally – before, during or after the birth.
A Last Word For Birth Photographers
I’ve had a birth photographer myself – it was all arranged last minute when I felt that the energy of the first photographer we chose was way too much for what I wanted. I was planning a home waterbirth and I found that the photographer had too much energy for me. I understood her enthusiasm, I was to be her first birth and birth is amazing, but I didn’t want to deal with her energy or anxiety during the birth – nor did I want conflict if my midwife spoke up and told her to back off.
I speak to many women and doulas every single day, and I am concerned to hear that many women are choosing photographers that don’t feel right, but they feel bad hurting their feelings and can’t tell them that they have changed their mind. I have heard that some photographers have gotten angry or upset when a woman has been honest about wanting to use someone else. It puts a woman in a very difficult position.
All birth workers – like doulas and independent midwives – learn right from the get-go that birth is most importantly about a good ‘fit’ – and it works both ways. We understand that a woman needs a good energy with you and vice versa. Walking away can sometimes be the best thing for a woman and yourself. Understand that if a woman changes her mind, or doesn’t choose you, its nothing personal, and you only stand to do damage to the profession if you don’t support her decisions. Encourage her to interview several photographers to find the right fit – because you’re choosing to work for women who will either have a great experience and recommend you, or a bad experience and tell people birth photography is a bad idea. You must simply put your disappointment behind you, because just as your decisions and choices deserve to be respected, so does a birthing mother’s – who has so much more at stake. And there are so many births happening every single day, there will be another come along that was a much better fit for you both.