I am a fine-art and commercial photographer of 11 years. Having long created surreal and elaborate fantasy scenes, always with a singularly conventional femininity, I’ve been increasingly hungry to showcase a more raw, powerful beauty in the most surreal yet commonplace event in a woman’s life: childbirth.
I have long been fascinated by birth ever since I first began, around the age of 25, to discover books by Ina May Gaskin, Sheila Kitzinger and Grantly Dick-Read. I was eager to find a more positive way to approach pregnancy and birth than our mainstream norm, and I planned a homebirth with an independent midwife. Pregnant at 27, three months prior to the birth of our first child, however, we discovered our child was not destined to live. He had a terminally fatal condition – Potter’s Syndrome or ‘bilateral renal agenesis’ – the absence of both kidneys. Devastated, we gradually built our strength back to pursue our original plan of having a homebirth as the peaceful conclusion to his life. Stillborn two weeks before Christmas 2013, I look back on the birth of Evan Gabriel as the hardest, yet proudest thing I have ever done.
Determined to believe again in our chances of having healthy children, seven months later we conceived again and gave birth to Lilith Iris – Evan’s bouncing healthy sister – in the spring of 2015 in another beautiful homebirth. Not only did it heal me from my bitterness of losing a child, but it confirmed to me how important the act of birth is for a woman whatever the situation. How was it that I looked back, with such pride and happiness, on the stillbirth of Evan when there were women reflecting on their ‘normal’ live medical births with tears of terror?
I longed for all women to feel as empowered as I felt giving birth to Evan, whether in home or hospital (both my births would have been resigned to the hospital had I followed the public health system and not had an independent midwife at my side). I longed for all women to have their wishes heard and to be treated with respect and dignity, and I believe this stems from honouring their physiological instincts. All women to some capacity want a “birth undisturbed”. And thus, my personal story, converged with a universal sentiment, led to the conception of a photo series of that name.
Birth of a series
I wanted to bring a visual voice to all the empowering books I’d read: books that other woman may not ever see, or have time to open. Could putting the stories of birth philosophers into images help usher in a raising of birth consciousness, remind women of their power to give birth primally and instinctively, on their own time, terms and terrain? There are many ways I could do this. I could make a series specifically about midwives, about homebirth, or about birth philosophers. Or I could be led by a compulsion to serve a rich, memorable vision for each scene that would do all these things and more. Birth writers, dead and living, called to me from those books:
“Open any obstretic textbook to see headless torsos, forceps blades inserted… generations of medical students have been taught with images like these to see women’s bodies as depersonalised, fragmented and sexless. Birth as a mechanical dilemma. Images of birth which celebrate the energy of women’s bodies could be on the walls of every hospital… and start to acknowledge birth as a psychosexual experience” – Sheila Kitzinger
“By intermingling the language of the heart and the scientific language, [we] can drive the history of childbirth towards a radical and inspiring new direction” – Michel Odent
When someone first hears the words ‘birth’ and ‘photography’, the image that comes to mind is documentary birth photography: real births photographed in candid rawness, many out there behind the mainstream cliché of medicalised stock imagery. My genre is not documentary, however, but staged photography, ‘tableaux’ as it’s called, where scenes are specifically set up to serve a very specific vision. I would leave birth photography to the birth photographers. Instead I wanted to construct my own visions.
It takes hours to get the shot right, and it would be a travesty to impose this on a real labouring woman and newborn baby. So, this is where you bring in the prosthetic silicone baby, cords and placenta; prosthetic bumps; or Photoshop and CGI trickery, SFX blood, compositing and exposure blending. I sought out the best camera I could: Phase One IQ3 and 100 megapixel medium format; commissioned storyboards of the visions I was having; and picked from the best stylists, makeup and models I’d known through the years. I drafted in a professional ‘behind the scenes’ camera crew to make a five-minute movie for each story, in the biggest financial punt I’ve ever taken on my own work in such a sustained way. All I knew was that this had not been done quite like it before, and I believe firmly that our culture desperately needs it.
Artistically, my desire can be described as wanting to converge the cinematic photography style of Gregory Crewdson with the anti-institutional bite of Banksy; a kitsch Kubrick quirkiness with the pragmatic documentary enquiry of a history channel; a Renaissance classical painterliness with a stark, Emin-esque photographic modernity of graphic birth: how it should be; how it could be in the future. I knew it might be a great gamble with my career, but my belief far outweighs the fear, in a project that gives me a high like nothing I’ve known, and quenches a thirst I’ve long had. It is turning my artistic compass permanently towards a quest to unearth ancient truth, real human independence and freedom, in my projects.
The first four images of Birth Undisturbed were released in November-December 2017.
The first image is Salle Sauvage, taken from Michel Odent, which translates to ‘primitive room’. This refers to his hospital in France, which has rooms designed to accommodate the primal instincts of labouring women. A glass cube set within the urban landscape of London is my metaphor for Odent’s primitive room and a woman’s connection with nature through homebirth. It is as though the walls of a living room have become transparent, admitting our spectatorship into the private space of a birthing woman. Power, pain and ecstasy intermingle in one big shout, her baby is born safely, savagely, without interruption into her own hands. In the words of Ina May Gaskin, she “lets her monkey do it”; almost an animal behind a screen that, poignantly, could also unnervingly evoke a human menagerie: natural birth as a cabinet specimen, a primitive display that threatens to be a thing of the past?
The Whitechapel Woman is a visualisation of the famous passage of a 1911 London scene inspiring Grantly Dick-Read’s famous Childbirth Without Fear. ‘It wasn’t supposed to hurt, was it, Doctor?’ A chance phrase by a poor woman in a hovel in Whitechapel, that birth wasn’t meant to be painful, led the young Dick-Read to explore that in the absence of fear, the body’s natural endorphins can replace the stress hormones that cause pain. I recreated his scene almost prescriptively, at Dennis Severs’ House, with inspiration from the composition of painting The Doctor (1890) by Sir Luke Fildes, to bring the Whitechapel woman back to life – she whose humble influence unknowingly catalysed a doctor’s insistence of listening to women at their bedside – and that our modern culture of increasingly machine-reliant, birth depersonalisation may learn from again.
Whitechapel Woman video
The third chapter is entitled Ejection Reflex, a reference to both the milk ejection and the ‘fetal ejection reflex’, a term introduced by Niles Newton in the 1960s, where a baby comes through an involuntary expulsion, without forcibly pushing. I wanted to visualise a normal biological phenomenon that I feel is unacceptably obscure in a culture where 99 per cent of births take place in hospital, and thus renders the reflex something we only see in mainstream during ‘accidental’ births in transit. Although this scene is one that happens every day, it is as symbolic as realistic: a woman in the last moment of leaving her homestead, positioned on the precipice between nature; and the outer manmade world hallmarked by the car, telephone wires and surveillance camera, into which her well-meaning spouse was ready to transport her.
The picture is also a comment on the increasing practice of inducing pregnant women according to what is a culture’s interpretation of normal gestation and a ‘due date’– and the recent news story in 2017 that women should be induced at 39 weeks, an untenable and dangerous intervention which would also eradicate most spontaneous births.
Ejection Reflex video
The fourth image is The Creation Of Man, an unprecedented, graphic yet tender re-imagining of the Nativity. Every year we celebrate a natural birth, a story that takes place in the most primitive surroundings. Mary, giving birth to the Son of God in a stable, that infamous story familiar to even the non-religious. Yet how is it that beyond Julius Garibaldi’s painting in 1891 of Mary and Joseph slumped in raw exhaustion, we have never seen a ‘real’ depiction of birth biology, particularly of Mary in upright, ecstatic primal instinct that such an environment would have helped facilitate? Risking controversy to use universal characters to portray the ultimate ‘birth undisturbed’, I use a stable in Tuscany to depict Mary in the powerful moment of birthing into the calm and steady hands of an actively participating Joseph, protesting any notion that the humbling, creative power of woman is anything but as awe-inspiring as the creative hand of God himself.
Can an art series help to create change? I believe the ripples created could indeed be powerful. Already I hear in particular from mothers, midwives and birth workers worldwide, who feel their sentiments visualised. As much as I hope for my art series to succeed in the art world, I dream of planting a seed for an even profounder influence; or at least I can feel duty-fulfilled for trying.
As I progress through the series I find my mission is not simply to replicate reality but to create the images that have an element that cannot be found in documentary photography: images that do not ‘exist’ already. This remit helps me to build the rest of the series planned for 2018, planning for a series of 12 images in total.
“When we as a society begin to value mothers as the givers and supporters of life, then we will see social change in ways that matter” – Ina May Gaskin