Monday 19 February 2018

Call the midwife - and the birth photographer

Couples are hiring professional snappers to capture the rollercoaster of emotions during labour.

Happiest day: Susan Lynch with new born baby Faye, captured by Claire Wilson.
Happiest day: Susan Lynch with new born baby Faye, captured by Claire Wilson.
Prior to the birth, in the birthing pool.
Precious moments: Baby Faye captured by Claire Wilson just moments after being born in a birthing pool.

Chrissie Russell

On the evening of April 21, 2013, Susan Lynch went into labour. "I'd had a few false alarms the previous week but on that Sunday evening it felt different, more active, more serious," she says. She phoned her midwife and, along with her husband Tadhg, started filling up the inflatable pool in their living room for the home birth they'd planned for this, their third child.

Susan (39), a librarian and yoga teacher from Bray, Co Wicklow, popped some Lisa Hannigan on the stereo and lit a cosy fire. But as the contractions became more intense she knew it was time to have the midwife on hand, and the photographer.

From around midnight until 3.40am, when baby Faye made her first appearance into the world, Susan's labour and delivery was captured by a professional photographer, Claire Wilson. It was the first time Claire had done such a unique shoot. But while it might be an unusual booking in Ireland, the trend for birth photography is something that has been steadily on the rise around the world.

Last year UK parenting website, Babycentre UK, revealed that conversations on forums about birth photography have risen by 112pc since 2013. A survey found that 20pc of mums and pregnant women would consider, or have hired, a professional photographer to take snaps of their labour and births.

The Facebook group 'Birth Without Fear', which showcases birth photography pictures from America, Europe and South Africa, has a following of nearly 300,000.

It was looking at some of the images coming out of the States, showing home births, that got Susan interested. "I thought they were beautiful images," she explains. "There are often a lot of horror stories around births but my births were really positive and empowering. Seeing the more positive images portrayed online got me thinking 'I'd love to do that'."

She couldn't find anyone doing birth photography in Ireland and contacted Claire via her newborn photography website saying "this might be the strangest request you've ever had," and immediately got an email back.

"Birth photography had actually been on my photographer's bucket list for ages," laughs Claire, a mum of two from Greystones.

"But you can't really go up to people asking them if you can photograph them giving birth! I was delighted when Susan got in touch."

Since then she's attended three more births with another two booked. As far as she knows, she's the first, and one of just two photographers, providing a birth photography service in Ireland.

The policy in Irish hospitals only allows one other person in the delivery room, meaning all Claire's clients have been home water births and none of them have been first-time mums.

Since she has to be on call the best part of a month, her services cost upwards of €500. "In the UK it's much more expensive," she explains. "But I don't charge what it actually costs, it's more a labour of love for me."

Yes, for those wondering, she does photograph the business end of things. "I've taken pictures of babies crowning and partly born in the caul," she explains.

But her images are more about documenting the little looks between couples, the intimacy and emotion of birth rather than being voyeuristic or explicit.

As someone who gave birth in the not too distant past, I confess, I'm not immediately sold on the notion. After two days in hospital and no sleep, I know my post-partum self was not at its most photogenic. I have a sole, grainy iPhone shot to confirm this. Also, I don't know what was going on down there but it was enough to make the trainee doctor leave the room, with the midwife murmuring about their 'need to get a stronger stomach'.

But then Susan sent me her slide show of Faye's birth and there's no two ways about it, it's undeniably beautiful. Claire's black and white imagery captures the joy, intimacy and wonder of the moment. It's not gory or intrusive, it's touching. Particularly the moments just after Faye's birth, when dad is staring adoringly at his two girls and Susan looks exhausted but euphoric.

It's tear-jerking stuff.

A cursory look online will show that there is an interest among some mums to know what make up to pack for the delivery ward, and what treatments to have pre-labour to look good in photos.

Celebrities have been vocal about wanting to look good after delivery, with Kourtney Kardashian applying make up before giving birth and Beyonce getting her eye-brows, nails, feet and hair done before Blue Ivy's birth.

But Claire's birth photography, and the vast majority of birth photography, isn't about looking good so you can tweet the world a photo of baby emerging from your freshly waxed lady bits.

"There's no one applying lipstick, or worrying about their hair," says Claire. "It's all very natural and genuinely beautiful. I'm on a high after every birth and there are always tears because it's just a beautiful, wonderful thing to be part of."

Susan agrees. "I know not everyone has a positive birth experience, but there are so many negative, horror stories out there. I didn't share my birth photos on social media but the reason I agreed Claire using my photos on her website was because I wanted to put positive images out there for other women to see."

Her midwife was a fan too. "Our wonderful midwife, Philomena Canning, loved them," says Susan. "She'd been practising for 30 years and never seen herself in action - she thought they were beautiful.

"It was a big decision to invite someone into a very personal space and right up until the night, I wasn't sure if I would actually make the call, but we were absolutely thrilled with the photos.

"It did add a different element to the birth. I wouldn't change it, but I don't know if I would do it again."

It's an interesting dilemma. In order to get wonderful images capturing a deeply intimate moment, you have to invite a relative stranger into the equation. Neither dad's wobbly hands nor a busy midwife's photographic efforts will achieve the same result, but is it worth having someone else there?

And what if something goes wrong? Happily it never has at Claire's births but if it did, she says it would be a judgement call she'd have to make on when to stop snapping. What might seem uncomfortable to record, might one day be a treasured keepsake.

It's often said that one of the wonders of labour is that we forget about it - and that's what enables us to go again. I can remember very little of the experience or the hours after.

"What did we do then? When did I hold him? When did he start crying?" are just some of the questions I've asked my husband, trying to piece together a blurry sense of those first precious hours as a family.

I may not be entirely sold on the idea but I admit, after seeing Susan and Annette's birth photography memories, I'm just the teensiest bit jealous.

Irish Independent

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