Hospital bag, check, midwife, check, birth photographer, check. Why so many women are choosing to document their labour.

January 13, 2019

Instagram has brought us many things since its launch in 2010. Hygge home, self-taught make-up artists, fashion influencers, mummy bloggers, the list goes on.  

More recently, Instagram has given visibility to a new trend that may come as a surprise to the more prudish of those out there, and that is birth photography. 

When discussing the evolution of this with my colleagues, I was met with the oh so expected “why on earth would you want to have photos of, that?” 

My answer is, why on earth not? 

Until recent years, birth was almost invisible on any media platform. There were plenty of post birth images: first photo of parents and baby, first bath, first feed, and first cuddle, but images of labour have always been hidden. A lot of women are unaware of what birth looks like until they go through it themselves. 

There are many reasons why this may be, but the fact that birth has always been a taboo subject is one of them. Historically, women were expected to keep their experience of labour to themselves, making the birth place a mystical environment.  

As BBC’s Call the Midwife showed us, even men were excluded from the birth room, a barrier that only began to break in the 60s. 

A lot has changed since then and images of birth have become readily available through TV programs like One Born Every Minute and Delivering Babies. The programs show birth in a raw and educational way, telling the stories of women and parents from all walks of life. 

I have watched these programs with an intense fascination, but I have never been able to explain why my obsession with childbirth and labour runs so deep. When I put this question to birth photographer, Hannah Bracher-Smith, she explained to me that she believes it is because the process is so natural. 

“We literally would not be here if it wasn’t for birth, so it is only natural to be drawn to it”, Hannah says. 

Hannah, a 25-year-old mother of one living in Canton, Cardiff, with her husband and daughter, started her photography business just two months before giving birth, during what she called her ‘nesting stage’ of pregnancy. 

I came across Hannah’s Instagram page when stalking #BirthPhotography, a tag that has over 266,000 to date. Her page is full of beautiful and intimate images of parents in the birth space, showing the raw reality of what it is like for a woman in labour. 

Birth photographers capture anything and everything from moments during pregnancy to the crowning moment of labour and beyond.  

The sharing of intimate images like this has not always been easy as Instagram’s regulations and community guidelines explicitly ban content that includes “genitals and close ups of fully nude buttocks”, meaning images depicting birth were regularly removed from the platform. 

In 2017, Katie Vigos, a nurse from Los Angeles launched a petition demanding the platform allow users to post uncensored photographs of childbirth. 

The petition gained 23,130 signatures, forcing Instagram to change their policy. The platform now allows childbirth in all forms and expression on their platform.  

Hannah has welcomed this change as she believes it contributes to the breakdown of the stigmatisation that surrounds the naked female body. 

But for Hannah, documenting birth is not just about breaking that stigma, it is also to ensure that her clients have something to look back on. 

“There’s a massive recollection issue with birth, you put your body under so much physical and mental exhaustion. Our body tells us to forget the whole experience and how painful it was, so we have more babies.” she jokes. 

With years of experience capturing images of her friends weddings and family events, she started off capturing everything, but when her daughter Alba was born, her fascination with the physiology of birth grew, influencing her to move into birth photography. 

Two years later, Hannah has now captured three births, as well as multiple pregnancy and ‘fresh 48’ shoots, where she will visit parents and baby for the first 48 hours of their life, capturing everything from first skin to skin to first night at home.  

Hannah’s decision to offer these services comes from her own experience of labour, and how much she values the memory of it. 

“I try to ensure that my clients who only opt for fresh 48 shoots do not regret not documenting their birth too. I did not document my daughter’s birth as I did not know much about it then. 

“I just gave my husband my camera and told him to click, and I will treasure those photos forever” she says. 

I was curious about the type of people who would opt to have their birth documented, wondering if it was a trend only available and accessible to a certain social class, but Hannah reassured me that her clients come from all sorts of backgrounds with different reasons behind their decision. 

Jorja Fox, Hannah’s 24-year-old client from Bristol told me that for her, documenting her birth was a way to ensure that those moments were captured forever.  

“For myself, and for my son Logan to look back on when he’s older. My son recently turned one and I could not be happier that I have these pictures of the day my life changed in so many ways.”  

Jorja also spoke of the emotional support Hannah offered her, saying “she was so much more than a photographer, she helped me through everything, and I felt so supported, cared for and listened to.” 

Hannah’s presence as a photographer in the birth room is far from the depiction of labour shown in TV shows like Call the Midwife. Also offering supportive birth partner services, she believes her being there allows the second parent – particularly the once excluded father - to be more present as she acts as extra emotional support for both parents.  

“I love women supporting women but then there is this part of me that feels a responsibility to support the birth partner too, as its their baby as well and I would not want them to feel like they have been pushed aside.” 

Hannah once wanted to pursue a career in midwifery but couldn’t give up her love of photography. By documenting birth, Hannah is not only providing her clients with treasured memories to look back on, she is also contributing to the de-stigmatisation of women’s bodies and their experiences of labour.  

If you are intrigued and want to learn more, follow @Hannahbphotographyuk on Instagram.

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