Having someone photograph you during both one of the most intimate and intense experiences of your life might not sound like the most enjoyable pastime, but the advent of birth photography is seeing women worldwide hiring professionals to be by their side during labour in order to capture the birth of their children.
To better understand the process and take a look at some of the incredible images this line of work can produce, we caught up with birth photographer and doula Hannah Palamara, who has been in the business for three years. Here, she talks us through how she got into her career, what it involves, and why she’ll never look back.
What makes a birth photographer?
“It was after I had had my second child that I got my first camera. I started out doing family photography really – couples, children, babies, that kind of stuff. It wasn’t until I’d had my third child that I really got serious about working in birth. I’ve had three really interesting birth stories – two quite traumatic C-sections and then a home birth. Initially this led me to start holding support groups in my home, and that meant I started working as a birth doula without really realising what I was doing. After that, I did my training and from there the photography part of my work seemed to follow really naturally, I just hit the ground running with it! Now I’m completely hooked – it’s my passion and I just love working in the birth space and being able to creatively capture that for families.
“Something that I always say is that not any photographer can be a birth photographer. Although you don’t necessarily have to be a birth worker – say a doula or a midwife – I think you do have to have the essence of a birth worker. You need to understand the physiology of birth and how it works; you need to understand how the system works so that you can develop a relationship with medical professionals so that they can respect you and work with you in the birth space.
Capturing the moment
“I think birth photography is like wedding photography in a way because it’s telling a story of a whole event from start to finish, whatever happens, with honesty and care. The reasons people want their births photographed vary. Sometimes they simply want the process documented, and other times it’s used as part of a healing process after a previous difficult birth – for example a C section where they might not have felt like they were fully present or in control.
“I call it a visual debrief because you are able to look back at those photos and see exactly what happened in all it’s glory! There are things a birth photographer can capture that a lot of women don’t even know have happened during their labour. Actually that’s something I see quite often – women or couples coming back to me having looked at their photos saying ‘we didn’t even notice this’ or ‘we wouldn’t have seen that happening’. It’s just about capturing something in the moment that may not otherwise have been noticed.
“I didn’t have professional photos taken at my last birth but from the images I do have, something that really stood out to me was seeing how loving and caring my husband was being towards me. I had my eyes closed the whole time so I didn’t know what was going on! That’s another common factor that a lot of new mums pick up on from their photos.
“When a women is giving birth she is at her most vulnerable, often naked and she needs to be able to let go in order for the process of birth to work. That means that the photographer needs to be someone who you feel safe to do that with. Before the big day, we will meet several times, sit down together and go over their birth plan so that they know exactly what to expect from me and I can ensure they are happy with how I plan to go about taking the pictures.
“I go on call officially at 38 weeks of pregnancy although I am available prior to that should they go into labour. That means being available 24/7 on the phone, not traveling more than an hour or two away from them (depending on what number baby it is) and having my phone in reception at all times so that they can always reach me. As soon as anything happens they call me and then we decide together at what point I will come to them.
“The actual labour is different for every woman. I haven’t yet been told to leave or had anyone decide that they’d rather I wasn’t there but sometimes plans do change. At a birth I did last November things were taking quite a long time, to the point where I’d been there for 24 hours, and still no baby! There were two midwives, a doula and me and I felt – from drawing on my own experience – that the mother needed total privacy. After a lot of popping in and out of the room really quietly, we had a discussion and all decided that she needed to be alone for a little while. After having some time to herself, the mother was then ready for us to come back in and carry on working. That’s a good example of why it’s vital to have a relationship with your client in advance, because I was able without even speaking to her to know she needed privacy. If I hadn’t been so sensitive, she might have asked me to leave and not come back!
Taking the photos
“We always talk in our sessions prior to the birth about what it is the client would like image-wise, but in my experience it seems that most people who hire a birth photographer want the whole birth from start to finish, including close ups of the baby coming out. But it’s not just about the crotch shots – believe me, there’s a lot more to birth than that one moment!
“Lighting is a big part of the process, as different types of lighting work better for different photos, and I will always make the couple aware of how I plan to take the pictures. After the birth is over, each image can be edited really tastefully and beautifully – this generally takes between two and four weeks – and the finished product is just so amazing. To see a baby coming into the world in all these different ways is incredible.
“I had one lady ring me up at 10pm crying down the phone with happiness after seeing her photos. She just didn’t know what to expect from them but found that seeing the beauty of the images really showed her what a wonderful process her home birth had been after having a c section previously. She said it was really healing for her and she was just so proud of herself for doing it. I loved that – sometimes we forget that we go through so much to have these babies and we do a really good job.
Perks of the job
“I feel like my work as a doula compliments my photography really well as it allows me to have an extensive knowledge of the physiology of birth and how it works. Working within the NHS with other healthcare professionals and understanding how that works is really advantageous, and I’d encourage anyone thinking of going into birth photography to get experience in that department. It will help not only in situations where things haven’t quite gone to plan but also in instances when something is about to happen and you need to get that image just right.
“My favourite part of the job is seeing the images I have captured and being able to give them to people – seeing the beauty of each person’s story and being able to share that with them. I also love being able to get more birth photography out in the media, because I think it tells the story of what birth can really be like instead of how it can sometimes be portrayed – as something scary or dangerous. It’s rarely either of those things; more often it is beautiful and calm.”