From Baby Photography to Birth Photography

Photography: Naomi Solomon

Photographers who work with clients from the engagement shoot through the wedding to the baby photos and family portraits might just be missing an opportunity to shoot another lifetime landmark: the birth. It’s a trend that’s been growing in line with the use of doulas and home births, non-intervention and natural birthing. The International Association of Birth Photographers, an organization established by a birth photographer who kept receiving enquiries from women out of state, now lists 400 members. The phenomenon has been covered recently on Canada’s CTV News and by The New York Times.

The rising popularity of birth photography might be surprising. Weddings are pretty, public events but births are messy, private and personal. Women in labor are more concerned about their own pain and the welfare of their baby than in smiling for the lens and looking their best on film, and the newborns themselves are a long way from the clean, posed images of babies held in swaddling blankets and sitting next to puppies. Filled with nudity, nature, blood and disorder, birth photography has little in common with the kinds of jobs most photographers are used to completing. The requests though come in from a wide range of women, each with their own reason for wanting to record the arrival of their family’s new addition.

“My clients range from women whose personal choice is to schedule a Cesarean before ever feeling a contraction to women giving birth in water at home with midwives,” says Naomi Solomon of The Journey of Birth, a birth photography business. “They are diverse in culture and ethnicity. The one common thread is their appreciation for art of photography and for the decisive moment.”

Birth photographers tend to arrive when the client is at six centimeters and remain with the family until about three hours after the baby is born. The aim is to shoot the last few hours of the pregnancy and the first few hours of the family’s new life. It’s a time of huge emotions, a combination of concern, relief and joy, and the challenge for the photographer is to represent those feelings without focusing on the medical procedures or producing images that are graphic or overly biological. Naomi Solomon makes a point of not shooting the administration of epidurals or any invasive preparatory procedures and rarely photographs the woman while she is pushing. Informational shots such as clocks, monitors and scales are ignored too in favor of a series of images that tell the story of an emotionally-charged movement from pregnancy to family.

“When people hear ‘birth photography’ an image immediately pops into their mind of a woman pushing a baby out,” says Solomon. “That is why I refer to my work as photographing birth journeys; the fully pregnant belly, partnership during labor, the first time parents see their baby, the bond between parents and baby during the first hour of life, baby’s first bath, first nursing, meeting siblings and grandparents. I look for shapes, lighting and expression that capture the charge of emotion, exhaustion, struggle, anticipation, triumph and celebration.”

Nor is birth photography something that can be captured by anyone but a hired professional. Fathers may no longer be busy fetching hot towels or boiling water, but they will be too emotional and too involved to whip out their camera phones. Few mothers want a room filled with onlookers or friends as they’re struggling to push out their baby. Unlike some weddings and plenty of family portraits, documenting fully the moment of birth is something that can only be done by a hired hand.

Partner with the Birthing Team

Solomon has been a professional photographer for fourteen years. She launched her birth photography business in 2009 after starting a personal project documenting home births. It was a niche business, she felt, that she could manage while staying local and raising her own family. She now photographs two births a month and charges around $800, a rate that seems to about standard for birth photography. Clients come in through Internet searches, by word of mouth and from her listing in the International Association of Birth Photographers’ directory. Partnerships with other birthing professionals can also attract clients. Solomon receives referrals from doulas and other birth photographers, and clients will often have picked up her card at their doctor’s office, or from their midwife, chiropractor or Yoga center.

Those fees though have to cover both an unreliable number of hours and an event which is entirely unpredictable. Like doulas, birth photographers have to available at a moment’s notice. The New York Times describes photographers booking vacations ten months in advance and always traveling with their own families in two cars in case a call from a client comes in while they’re in the park or out shopping. Naomi Solomon recalls one client who had planned for a home birth but whose water broke 30 days before her due date with no signs of contractions or labor. With just 24 hours to produce the baby before the risk of infection would force her into hospital, and possibly to have a Cesarian, she birthed naturally at home in the last hour.

Photography: Naomi Solomon

A Friend with a Camera Bag

Home births, though, do provide a solution to one challenge faced by birth photographers: the willingness of the hospital to let the photographer do her job.  Different hospitals can have different polices towards the arrival of someone who is not a family member turning up in the delivery room with an armload of cameras and a box of lenses. Enforcement can be patchy too: some delivery rooms might turn a blind eye to a “friend” taking pictures but be more stringent if the birth requires surgical intervention.

The practical challenges of unpredictable timing and shooting permission aside, birth photography can do a lot more than provide professional photographers with one more earning opportunity. It can let them document a lifetime moment that’s unlike any other event they’ll be hired to shoot — and unlike any other birth they’ll have been asked to photograph.

“When you go to photograph a birth, don’t walk in with expectations or preconceived images you hope to create,” advises Naomi Solomon. “The power of a laboring woman’s mindset can and will make miracles happen.”

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