The birth photographer dinner club is a sacred sisterhood dedicated to motherhood. They record mothers laboring for hours and hours, at home or at the hospital, sitting and standing, in water and out of water. They photograph vaginal births and cesarean deliveries, and when mothers first meet the eyes of their babies. They show the minute when a tiny new vernix-covered human first inhales, and the first time a mother touches her child’s soft, fragile skin.
A group of local women have found community in birth photography—they love documenting birth and being around it and each other. Perhaps they’re the only ones who could understand exactly what they do: make the transfixing power of childbirth into art.
Some of these women wanted photographers present at their own births, and went on to become the photographer they were looking for; some dabbled in photography and recorded the births and babies of friends and family, and then a hobby blossomed into a business. For some, it was a combination of both. Now, documenting pregnancy, childbirth, and newborns is their main job, and they service much of the D.C. area.
Heidi Daniels has been moved by birth photography since before she ever became pregnant herself. “I had come across some birth photography slideshows from a couple photographers in Texas where I guess birth photography is really big,” she says. “And I cried over these slideshows of birth photos of people I had never met.”
She got her initial chance to photograph a birth in 2012, after she had the first of her three children in 2011. A resident of Gainesville, Virginia, Daniels’ business began with a handful of free photos: a home birth, a hospital birth, and a birth center birth. She set up her website and before long was inundated with inquiries. A couple years after she started her business, she says, the art form became a growing niche market. Now she produces birth films as well.
The job of birth photography itself is full of emotional labor. “There have been times that I’ve cried the whole way home from a birth,” Daniels says. “It’s a lot to carry sometimes. That’s where having a community of birth photographers is really helpful because we can decompress with each other.”
They’ve even taken photos of each other giving birth. Angie Klaus, one of Daniels’ close friends, took photos of her as she gave birth to her daughter this spring. And Daniels photographed Klaus’ fourth birth, just seven weeks ago. Daniels wanted Klaus to document her birth, and then Klaus got pregnant and wanted Daniels to document hers.
Emily Gerald shot her first birth in 2014, and she was red in the face from it. “That was the first time I saw a baby being born,” she says. That birth was an induction. Gerald went from having a normal conversation with the mother to witnessing a baby’s birth in a matter of minutes. “I was in shock,” she says. Also of Gainesville, she shoots maternity and newborn photos as well, and she loves getting to be behind the scenes in other people’s lives and stories.
Gerald took photos of fellow birth photographer Stefanie Harrington’s family and newborn daughter in 2016. Harrington lives in Northwest D.C., and says her process is to be supportive of the birth environment and each mother’s labor, making an effort to stay out of the way of present medical staff.
These women get to know the most specific details about a pregnancy, from when a mother’s water broke to which family members were present at her birth. Danielle Hobbs, another Gainesville birth photographer, believes the snapshots spark and create memories.
“These photographs ultimately become family heirlooms,” Gerald says. She has shot more than 50 births since her first, and her own babies—twins—will be 2 in November.
Hobbs says that being a mother helps in knowing how birth works and anticipating what will come with it. She is a mother of three, Klaus is a mother of four, Daniels is a mother of three, Gerald is a mother of two, and Harrington is a mother of three.
The women go out to dinner together once a month to bond over how to handle the unpredictable force that is birth.
“I really try to stay a fly on the wall,” Hobbs says. “There’s really no way to manipulate a birth session. The longest birth I had was 36 hours, which ended in a C-section. It was a unique situation where mom was preterm and every two hours they were checking her to see if she needed to be rushed to a C-section.” Hobbs goes in to each birth expecting to be there for at least 10 to 12 hours.
And one refrain you’ll hear these photogs say: “Every birth is different.”
The longest birth Klaus photographed lasted 52 hours at George Washington University Hospital. She slept on the floor, showered once, and ate a lot of granola bars. “But that mother was so grateful,” she says.
Many hospitals in the area do not allow photographers in the operating room for a C-section, Hobbs says. So, in those situations, she must send a partner in with her camera, and hope that a nurse can take a few photos, too. Vaginal hospital births and vaginal home births are also different scenarios when it comes to photography. If someone giving birth in a hospital has an epidural, there’s going to be a lot more downtime compared to a home birth where a mother is constantly moving all around the room and around the house.
Hobbs says she’s had some home birth clients who want her to capture everything with full coverage and no censorship. But plenty of her hospital birth clients prefer her to stay over their shoulders. Each birth photographer has her own style, but they honor what the parents want first.
The need for birth photography is better understood after birth. The photos and videos solidify the experience, helping parents remember what they and their children looked like. What did their baby’s first cry sound like? Were they born with a head full of hair?
Photos have helped Daniels remember and reckon with her own births, serving as proof of her power and strength.
“When you’re giving birth, you are very much in that moment and sometimes it’s sort of a haze, especially if things were harder than you expected or they didn’t go the way you wanted,” Daniels says. “Having the photos really helped me remember things I didn’t remember and see myself from the outside, to be able to see how strong I was. It helped me to process emotionally what happened.”
Birth so often is in the shadows, Daniels says. In her experience, most women don’t speak publicly about their births, after which a woman is not the same person, she says. “There’s this sort of stigma against it too, like well it’s kind of messy and gross and we don’t want to talk about that too much,” she says. “Sure, it’s messy, but the emotional journey that a woman has to go through to give birth to a baby is such a huge deal and I wish people would talk about it more and share it more. I love that birth photos are becoming more of a thing because women feel more comfortable sharing.”
The photographs have begun to open up a dialogue about childbirth and normalize the experience of seeing it up close. When people do something amazing in life, Daniels says, they talk about it. They advertise the accomplishment of climbing Mount Everest. But people give birth every day, every hour, every minute, every second, and it’s considered private, she says. “You think ‘I can’t do this,’ and then you go and you do it. There’s nothing more powerful than that feeling. I think women should be loudly advertising that.”
The gig has taken these women all across the region, from home to hospital to birth center. Sometimes, they’re stuck in a corner of a small room with horrid lighting and technical challenges. But what keeps them going is the honor of the access to new life. To these documentarians, birth is beautiful. But when they explain what they do for a living, not everyone understands.
Harrington says the art form has become more popular and sought-after in the last five years. Many, though, are still taken aback.
“When you tell people you photograph births, they have a look on their face that says, ‘Oh, you do what?’” Harrington says. Some people wonder why anyone would even want to have their birth photographed. “We photograph so much of our lives, so why not photograph one of the most amazing moments?” Harrington says.
Gerald says growing up with a mother who was a labor and delivery nurse has helped to give her a perspective on birth that allows her to photograph it. She celebrates it as something to never shy away from, hide from, or be embarrassed by. “It was never scary, it was never weird, it was never gross,” she says. “It was just how babies come into the world, a very matter of fact thing. This is birth. Everybody came into the world by being born. I have some distant family members who are like, ‘What do you do?’ They don’t understand it. I explain to them that it’s about the story and not just the actual moment that a baby leaves your body.”
The nature of being on-call is the most difficult aspect of being a birth photographer. They must be prepared for weeks, at all hours, to photograph a birth when they get the call that the baby is coming.
“I am contracted to be on-call two weeks before their due date and two weeks after their due date,” Hobbs says. “Some babies come early, some babies come late. For four weeks for every birth, I’m on-call, which means that I can’t drink; I can’t go more than an hour away; I have to take my camera with me everywhere I go; if I’m going to Target or to dinner with friends I have to drive separately.”
Being a birth photographer changes their lives. Clients get booked months in advance of a birth, generally in the first or second trimester. The photographers follow pregnancies sometimes from the very beginning. “I often get calls when someone has a positive pregnancy test,” Klaus says. “Sometimes I’m the first to know, even before a spouse or a parent.”
Photographer Nafa Ribeiro doesn’t currently take on births because she simply doesn’t have the time to be on-call. But she does specialize in maternity and newborn photography. Ribeiro’s Silver Spring-based photography company Judah Avenue does everything from weddings to holiday portraits. Though she has a team of photogs, she’s still the only maternity and newborn photographer on staff, giving her the chance to showcase the aesthetic beauty of motherhood. Her portfolio is full of pageantry and delight.
Ribeiro, originally from Ghana and a mother of two herself, says she knows how important it is for a woman to feel confident before, during, and after pregnancy. That confidence, she says, is tied to how they feel on the inside. The work she produces “is known to be dreamy with lots of femininity, elegant clothing, and clean vivid colors.”
In her view, she’s helping people create art. There are some women who view their pregnant bodies as works of art to be captured and hung on their walls. And, Ribeiro says, her maternity photography allows pregnant women to have fun and not think about doctors or nurses or anxiety about the health of the baby or themselves. “They come in excited and happy. It’s therapeutic for them and it’s very fulfilling for me.”
She began her business about 10 years ago, and was always good with mothers, but at first resisted photographing babies because she couldn’t tell them how to pose. She generally photographs babies within nine days of birth. “After being peed on a number of times, I wasn’t so confident that I wanted to photograph babies,” she says. “My clients would insist that I do it. And after doing this for a couple of years, I understood how to handle babies, how to comfort them, pose them, and generally get their cooperation. When I hold those babies, they become my babies. I actually get to see them growing from when they were in the womb. I make them call me Auntie Photographer.”
Diversity in front of the camera is also essential. It’s important for Ribeiro and the other members of the Judah Avenue photography team to be able to capture different skin colors and tones accurately, as clients come in many shades and from many walks of life.
“A lot of my support is from black women, African women, people just like me,” Ribeiro says. “I think I capture people who are like me and it’s important to show how beautiful the black body is, the black female body is. When you search Google for maternity photography, you see a lot of other races and not so many black women. I think it’s great that people like me can see themselves in my work.”
A couple years ago, Klaus made a conscious effort to have more variation in her birth and family sessions. She wants every kind of family to be represented in her work, not just those who are wealthy or who have white skin. So, she put the word out. Her efforts were intentional, she says, and they’ve paid off. She now has an inclusive portfolio, with families of all colors and backgrounds.
“My art has shaped itself, and my voice is more clear now than it used to be,” Klaus says. “But the essence of my work is still the same. It still centers itself around raw emotion, details, the support that people show to the mother and the strength of the mother, and the environment, like where this story was told, where this baby was born.”
The art of birth photography, Harrington says, is documenting a story that is completely undefinable, and out of anyone’s control, more so than anything else she photographs. “There are so many unknowns,” she says.
Those unknowns can include complications. Some births involve moments of extreme anxiety and tension, and photographers have even witnessed less than ideal treatment of families by care providers. And then, there are losses.
“I did just volunteer last year to photograph a loss,” Daniels says. A mother’s doula reached out to see if there was anyone who could take photos of a baby girl who had passed. At 37 weeks, doctors did not find a heartbeat for the baby. The mother delivered her baby stillborn, and she wanted some photos of her daughter. “It was really hard. It was very intense, really focusing on making sure this family had beautiful photos of their daughter. I don’t think you ever forget that.”
Daniels wants to do more of this type of photography, but says she won’t be emotionally prepared enough to do it until she’s finished having children of her own.
The sessions that stick with her are the hardest ones. Last year, she photographed a birth that included an induction and lasted for six days. Daniels came on the last day, and it was a slow burn. The mother pushed for five hours, Daniels says, which she had never seen anyone do before. “Some hospitals don’t let you do that, they have like a two-hour cutoff and then it’s an automatic C-section,” she says. “It was just amazing for me to see her keep going. She was so tired, but she never talked about being tired. She never gave up faith that she was going to have her baby. And she did end up having a vaginal birth. I was like ‘How is she doing this?’”
Birth photography can be a large investment—it’s rare to find services for less than $1,500. Gerald says sometimes it can be hard for people to come to terms with the cost of birth photography.
“You buy a brand new car and you drive it off the lot, and it’s immediately devalued,” she says. “With birth photography, you’re capturing these images, and the further you get from the day your baby was born, the harder it is to remember all of the little things that happened and the little moments.”
People can forget the details, she says, like the way a father looked when he saw the baby for the first time, and how many tears he cried. Or, the way a family member gnawed on ice chips from a plastic cup in the hospital. Those are moments no one can ever get back or recreate. Photographers aren’t immune to the power of those moments, and every moment, during birth.
“I think I sob every time I put together a client slideshow,” Harrington says. “Every time.”
Cover photo: “Frazier” by Stefanie Harrington, 2016