I’ve been fortunate to be given access into the lives of photo subjects, such as in my long-form photo project Girls…Now Women, about women I met as teens in foster care. I’ve gotten to know their children over the years.
However, I hadn’t yet had the opportunity to document someone delivering a child.
The first time I tried to photograph a birth was with a friend. My boyfriend and I visited at the hospital while her labor was just beginning. It seemed far off, so I was urged to go home and rest. My boyfriend, who went back to the hospital to spend time with her husband, promised to bring me back in time for the birth.
Unfortunately, he fell asleep and the baby was born.
(Minus 10, boyfriend.)
Another time, someone I knew was searching for a birth photographer in Phoenix. I didn’t know anyone who specialized in birth photography, but I said I was interested. However, I had a full-time office job at the time, and in the end, I couldn’t be sure that I’d be available. That just doesn’t work for documenting a birth, so we decided it wasn’t meant to be.
It seemed like I was striking out.
Although I did have friends who were having babies, they lived in different states or even other countries. So, when my brother told me his wife was pregnant again, I felt a twinge of excitement. I asked Blietek, his wife, if she might be interested in me documenting her birth.
She said yes.
Over the coming months, they didn’t bring the subject up again. Frankly, I thought they’d gotten cold feet.
They planned for Blietek to give birth in their 1 bedroom, San Francisco apartment with their toddler and three midwives present. Delivery is an intimate affair, and there’s would be even more so because of the limited space.
Meanwhile, I was in the midst of moving from the U.S. back to Indonesia and had a tight schedule. Still, I decided to book a trip to San Francisco with my mom for 4 days to coincide with Blietek’s due date. I hoped they still want me to photograph the birth, but even if they’d changed their minds, my mom and I could be there to help them out with childcare for my nephew.
My mom and I arrived at their house the night before Blie’s due date.
As we were eating dinner, my brother asked, “You brought your camera, right?”
So, we were on!
With paid clients, I’m hands-on about planning, but I’d been getting ready to move overseas and things had been a big whirlwind of packing.
I was just glad they still wanted me to document the birth!
By the way, I recently created a free online photography course which teaches you to take more engaging photos of people. The course is perfect for budding documentary photographers who want to add to their storytelling toolbelt and learn to put together compelling photo stories. I hope you’ll join me!
My mom and I went to our tiny AirBnb room with a bathroom the size of an airplane lavatory and poor cell service. I fretted a bit about the service in case my brother had to contact us, but we both fell asleep. At 2 a.m., we got a call from my brother that my sister-in-law’s labor had begun. Right on schedule!
We hurried out to the car and when we got to my brother’s house, we quietly walked in. Although the kitchen lights were on, it was dark in the living room.
All the lights were off, except some multi-colored Christmas lights.
Blietek was on a sofa bed with my brother, their son, and their three midwives.
I didn’t want to encroach on their space, so I slowly got my camera out and just watched from the kitchen. My mom tried to play with my nephew, but he only wanted his mom. One of the midwives beckoned me over.
As the contractions got closer together, my sister-in-law seemed to experience more pain. However, it was really interesting to observe the calm method the midwives used to help Blie navigate the experience.
I was acutely aware of the physicality of giving birth when the baby started crowning.
It was beauty and pain all wrapped in one and despite the low light, I was able to document it.
One of the midwives wore a headlamp and it helped with the lighting situation a bit. In retrospect, perhaps I should have turned on a lamp. However, there was a certain calm in the darkness, and I was hesitant to disrupt it.
Through this experience, I learned more about the incredibly intimate and beautiful birth process. Giving birth is hard, but worth it. Blietek and her family love the photos and I was honored to witness a peaceful, home birth full of love while having the chance to document it.
To read the original article about documenting my niece’s birth, please click here.
Writing and photographs contributed by Willow Paule.
Willow Paule is a documentary photographer who considers her photography practice a form of heart-led research to get to know people. She blogs about photography, creative risk-taking & bringing vulnerability into photography work. Love free photo courses? Sign up for her free e-course How To Create A Photo Story In One Week here.
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