Expectant parents are increasingly hiring photographers to take pictures in the delivery room. According to a recent poll on parenting website babycentre.co.uk, one in five mums or pregnant women surveyed said they would consider hiring a professional photographer to capture the special moments at their birth.
As writer Rachel Holmes pointed out in a recent Guardian story, this has become a growing trend across the UK. Prices start at $1,500 for one photographer and there are even competitions held by the International Association of Professional Birth Photographers (yes, it’s a genre) to honour ‘the best birth photograph’.
This topic is very much on my mind. Not least because I just received the photos taken at my daughter’s birth -- though I haven’t looked at them yet.
Birth photo shoots are not incredibly surprising, since people hire photographers for other big events. It’s just that this particular big event is a tad bit ... messier. Involving more straining vagina and ropey umbilical cord than most other occasions.
I would know- we were made to watch some very graphic videos in the birthing class I took. I’ve been afraid of bloody things and insides and all the associated goo since I was a kid, so I was the one in the back, trying to casually shield her eyes with a hand (“who me? I’m just brushing at this stray strand of hair! I love placentas!”).
“Woman up,” I told myself, repeatedly, in slightly different words, “You have to do this. Grow a pair. Of lactating boobs.”
But my stomach turned and I wished it would all just go away. Birth began to seem like a cliff. One day I would tip over and down I’d plummet, into a sea of pain and gore. It was sometimes hard to remember that there might be a baby at the end of all that.
Also, I was not thrilled with the idea of being seen naked and grunting and leaking weird fluids. I wanted as few people at the birth as possible. Midwife. Doula. Husband. Me (since it was increasingly clear that there was no way I could get out of it). I was told the midwife’s assistant had to be there as well and that made it sound like a lot of people. Too many.
I wish I could say that when I was giving birth, when the whole thing went down and I tipped over the side of the cliff, I released my inhibitions entirely and became an earthy birthing goddess. But in my head, I was mostly like “OH GOD THIS IS THE WORST THING EVER!!!” I even managed to worry about pooping myself. “Don’t think about that!” I chided myself, “You’re giving birth!” It didn’t work.
But then, just when I thought I might faint and I wasn’t sure I could go on and the prospect of pooping myself loomed inevitably, my daughter was born. And in one split second she went from being a horrible painful thing lodged inside a particularly tender part of my body to a real, complete, breathing, perfect baby. The midwife placed her in my arms. Her eyes were open and she didn’t cry. She looked just past me, calm and seemingly unperturbed by her dramatic, difficult entrance into the outer world.
I stared at her, stunned. It was as though my mind turned inside out and a garden sprang up in the cracked dirt of my empty spaces. I stared at my new, complete daughter, and was shocked by her face. It was already her own face. All of that time, I had been growing her inside me as though she were a part of me. And it turned out that she had always already been herself. It felt miraculous, ridiculous, brilliant.
“I don’t know what to do,” I said, floored.
The months since my daughter was born have been a blur of constant adjustment to her ever-changing needs and abilities. The days stream into one another, she grows exponentially and I try to keep noticing each development as I frantically run out for more diapers. I lose track.
But that moment—the moment she was born—I remember it vividly. It sits untouched in a special, protected spot in my mind. I call it back up and play it again sometimes, and I am awed in the middle of sorting the laundry.
So when I found out that my doula had taken photos of that exact moment, I was excited.
“I wasn’t sure you’d want them, but I took some just in case,” she said.
“Please send them all to me!” I said.
She did. I opened the email eagerly and started to click on the files. But something stopped me. My hand hovered, waiting. I wanted to see. I wanted to see my baby taking her very first breath. I wanted to see myself holding her. And at the same time, I was afraid. There was another part of me that wanted to preserve that perfect moment in my memory, instead of replacing or correcting it through the lens of the photos. I didn’t want to see that my daughter was red-faced and a little weird-looking. I remember her as smooth and exactly right. I didn’t want to see myself, sweaty and swollen, my face puffy and my hair matted. I remember myself as triumphant, glowing with victory and relief. I remember myself as powerful, in that instant. What I looked like doesn’t matter even a little bit as much as how I felt. But a photo makes what you look like the most relevant piece of information about you.
I told myself that I would open those files and look at the photos before finishing this piece. I would carefully document my reaction. But the truth is, I still can’t bring myself to study them. I admit- I peeked. I glanced at one or two and then quickly looked away. And sure enough, the baby is red-faced and wrinkled and I am bloated and look like the undead. But also, something else comes across in my face. A tremendous peace. A thankfulness and awe. And maybe the rest doesn’t matter.
So I’m unsure, as I write this, how I feel about photos at a birth.
I will say this, in terms of inviting a professional photographer to join the birth crew (if you can afford it!): it probably doesn’t really matter if one more person is there in the room. I don’t remember the midwife’s assistant being there at all, even though she was. I was very busy. I mean, I wouldn’t have wanted a photographer to see me poop myself, either, and there is no way I’d be OK with them snapping photos of me going through the agony of contractions. I’m assuming that the picture-taking would happen at the end. But maybe then, in that crazy, amazing transition from pregnancy to motherhood, photos can capture a hint of the enormousness of the experience. Maybe that’s worthwhile. Maybe it's worth the hefty price tag for beautifully angled art that memorializes this monumental instant.
Personally, though, I think I’ll hold onto my memories instead. I tucked the photos into a secret folder and left them there. Just in case one day I want to take another, more thorough look. For now, I will continue to replay that moment, when my life is just my usual, mundane life, and I am chasing after my exuberantly crawling baby, trying to prevent her from knocking something over onto herself. What a moment! I was pretty much a goddess. She was the most beautiful thing in the world. And all of that is simply too much for a photo, even one taken by a professional photographer, to ever capture.
Kate Fridkis is the author of the new book Growing Eden, Twenty-something and pregnant in New York City, available on Amazon UK and iBooks AU.