When the photographer weeps, and a bit about the value of birth photography

NOTE: The first section of this blog is an expansion on a recent Facebook post.

The second section tells the story of my most recent birth photography experience with the Lussier-Purdy family.

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Birth photography is one of the fastest-growing areas in family photography today. Though the importance of a baby’s birth within a family has always been understood, people are beginning now to recognize that professional photographs of a birth are just as important and meaningful – and arguably more so – than photographs of their wedding, birthdays, or any other life event. As trends shift to provide more support – by partners, family members, doulas, etc – for labouring and delivering mums, including those delivering in hospitals, so, too, change societal attitudes toward birth. We move from seeing birth as a private, behind-closed-doors, illicit affair, to seeing it as a something honourable and poignant, something worthy of sharing and visually celebrating.

Two weeks ago and following a successful online petition by LA-based doula Katie Vigos, Instagram and Facebook revised their policies. The platforms will now allow uncensored birth and breastfeeding photographs. This move marks a changing of the tides in social acceptance of the raw and graphic power of birth photography.

Though that's never been my fight, directly, I am happy to hear of these changes.

I'm a photographer of life: weddings, families, children, elderly, pets, the whole thing. I also attend events, and take the occasional portrait with lights and everything. I don't draw sharp distinctions between categories, and I believe this helps me capture powerful images. I approach birth photography the same way I approach all family and wedding photography - with the quest to photograph the real, in beautiful or surprising, but impactful, ways. I draw inspiration from documentary approaches, which means I prefer to leave the scene unchanged. In the delivery ward, there is no time or space or opportunity, to change the scene. The evolving scene is grand enough.

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Below is the photo story of a birth I recently photographed at the Kingston General Hospital. It is the story of baby Franklin's birth. He is the third child for this family, and the third boy. His mum laboured for only a brief time at the hospital - delivering him just a couple of hours after she had arrived to the labour & delivery wing. 

I was moved to tears during photographing the birth. I never cry during a photo session. I never cry at emotional parts of weddings, or heartfelt speeches. I get moved by all of those things, for sure. I remain in the moment, looking for the moment, pressing the shutter.

I didn't cry for the births of my own three children. I was so fully engrossed in the moment - in how cute my babies were - that I didn't have time for tears. It was pure adrenaline and love those three times.

I don't think I cried the first time I photographed a birth, either. I was awed and dismayed and probably a little afraid to screw it all up. That was three years ago.

This time I did cry. Once Franklin took his first breath and wailed with those fresh baby lungs of his, I felt I'd witnessed something tremendously powerful. I welled up.

The transfigurative moment that flits in with just the smallest change in circumstances - a baby descends a few inches through the birth canal into the open world - is a wondrous thing. One moment, there is no one there and the next - there is a being that demands all your attention. Of course that being was there all along, but it was encased, enveloped in warmth, and quite undemanding of his parents' time and efforts.

Perhaps this is based on my own experience, and my projections of my own welcoming of our third-born into the family. Perhaps the emotions I felt during this photography session were in part because I briefly longed for that time when my babies were so very fresh.

Perhaps it was the happiest of emotions that come from a certain knowing. Knowing that this little infant with a full set of blonde and wet curls was going to go home to the luckiest type of existence: surrounded by the unconditional love of his mother and father and the complex love of his two older brothers who are at such ages as to make them only vaguely familiar with the idea of having a baby brother and what that might mean, and generally ensconced in the all-encompassing blanket of love and safety this family has woven for one another. I can tell that Franklin, whether inside or outside the womb, will always be enveloped in warmth. 

He's a lucky boy, indeed, and I wish this family all the happiness in the world.

I would like to photograph more births in the Kingston area. If you are considering this type of photography and are currently pregnant, I would love to hear from you.

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