How photographing a natural home birth made my year

My niece Shasta’s first birthday is this month. In honor of the birthday, I decided to share the story of her birth, and how I photographed it.

I don’t really have a bucket list, per say. But I do keep track of ideas that resurface over and over again. I’ve been thinking about birth photography for quite some time. I have wanted to take photos of a birth for years because it’s something that scares me. I generally like photographing intensely emotional events, like trance dances in Indonesia, protests, and parades. What could be more emotional than bringing a baby into the world–through a very small passage?

Missed chances

A few years ago, I was invited to a friend’s birth in Indonesia and given permission to take photos. My friend was giving birth at a Puskesmas which is similar to a clinic. As I sat visiting, a nurse instructed her to lay in bed and it was getting late. Since she wasn’t having serious contractions yet, my boyfriend said he would drive me home, and pick me up a few hours later when the birth was imminent. Unfortunately, he fell asleep and by the time he awoke, the baby had been born. I was furious with him.

Later, another friend wrote on Facebook that she was looking for someone to document her natural birth. I would have loved to, but at the time I had an office job with an inflexible schedule. I wasn’t sure I could drop everything and get to her birth on time. Therefore, I had to let that opportunity pass.

Turns out opportunity was closer to home

After that, my sister-in-law Blie got pregnant. I mentioned in passing one day that I would like to photograph the birth of her child, and to my surprise, she was interested. She said she wanted me to come, and I made tentative plans to be in the country, and to come to San Francisco around her due date.

I did some research by looking at other photographers’ work. I especially enjoyed looking at photographs by Monet Nicole—Birthing Stories. The work was stellar, she photographed births in all different settings and families with an array of ethnicities. She understands light well and isn’t afraid to show the nitty-gritty realness of birth. I loved her work and was even more excited to photograph a birth.

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If I didn’t photograph the birth, I could alwaty watch my nephew Azlan while Blie gave birth.

Was I still on to document the birth?

In following months, I didn’t hear from my brother or sister-in-law again, though. I assumed they might have gotten cold feet. Most people who are being photographed want to talk about the details ahead of time or discuss the feel of the session. Also, with a birth, there is the potential for nudity. We needed to discuss how Blie would feel about this aspect. Although we didn’t have any of these conversations, I knew I could be helpful whether photographing or just being available to watch my nephew around the time of the birth. I made plans to be in San Francisco for 4 days with my mom, right around the time of the due date. I was about to fly to Indonesia, and I really hoped the baby would come on time!

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Yup, I was still on

When I met up with Blie and Braden, they assumed I had brought my camera. Luckily, I bring it everywhere. We speculated about whether the baby would come on time, as we had arrived on Blie’s due date. She appeared peaceful and relaxed, but tired. We ate dinner at their small apartment, where they planned to have a home birth. Then, my mom and I went back to our shoebox AirBnB room with almost no phone reception to sleep.

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Shasta came… almost on time

At about 2am, Braden called saying that Blie was having contractions. They asked us to come over. When we walked in, the only available light in the living room was from multicolor Christmas lights on the tree. Blie lay on a futon, and Braden and Azlan (my nephew) sat by her side. She had three birthing assistants in the room. My mom and I waited in the kitchen, because it was a small space, and we didn’t want to crowd Blie.

Finally, Azlan went to play with my mom, and one of the midwives invited me to take photos. Blie was experiencing contractions, but things still seemed peaceful.

As the contractions got closer together, Blie appeared to experience more pain. But her very calm midwives guided her and helped her coax Shasta from the comfortable home she had enjoyed for the past 9 months.

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Shooting in difficult conditions

Although the light was low, I strove to get clear photographs. One of the midwives had a headlamp, and aside from helping her see, it also helped me get clearer images. In retrospect, I probably should have asked to turn on a light. My photos would have been clearer that way. But, the lighting in that room was quite yellow, so I would have had to consider color casts when correcting the images.

Aside from the photography, I was struck by the enormity, the physicality of extracting a living being from the vagina. It was a hearteningly peaceful birth, with no major tearing, no need for drugs or surgery. And we were all grateful. But watching Shasta’s birth forced me to think about what it must feel like to give birth. I think this is what is called vicarious trauma.

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photographing a natural home birth

She’s here, she’s here!

So, finally Shasta was here and we were all impressed. After taking her in, I promptly fell asleep on Braden and Blie’s bed in the other room. My brother woke me up shortly after when Blie was ready to move from the living room to the bedroom.

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Azlan and his father check out Shasta, the new baby girl.

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I was honored to witness such an intimate event. It was great seeing Blie’s family come together to support her, and I was grateful that my mom and I could be there to bear witness, and help. Since I spend a lot of my time overseas, it was quite meaningful that Shasta came in time, and that I was there to greet her.

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Have you ever witnessed a birth or given birth? How was the experience? Would you have your birth photographed, or have you ever photographed someone else’s birth?