Birth Photography: Yes Please!

I tell other people’s stories to help me understand my own.

Let me explain: my mom is a deaf, Chinese immigrant, my dad is a hearing, white American and I grew up in an African American community. And to boot, no one ever spoke the same language at the same time in my house. To say that as a child I had an identity crisis is an understatement, so when I discovered photography (at the age of 10) as a tool to freeze and study human interaction, I was immediately drawn to documenting my family, curious to see how we looked like on film, curious to see how we looked to the world.

The first birth I ever photographed was a girlfriend’s in NYC in 2011. She was having a home birth and asked me if I would attend. I immediately asked if I could document it. She thought for a minute and said “yes.” She was equal parts ecstatic and terrified to go through labor and hadn’t completely come to terms with the fact that it was really going to happen. After labor, she said that having documentation of the process somehow made her feel calmer, that she loved the idea of being able to look at photographs years later as proof that it was real. It grounded her.

This was the first birth that I ever witnessed and I shot it on film at sunrise. It felt like I was in someone’s dream; it was insanely beautiful. At this point, I had been documenting families for years, but never had experienced anything that intimate. I felt like I had just taken a new drug for the first time and knew I needed to do it again.

To date, I’ve had the immense honor of witnessing and documenting 20 other births. My clients contact me when contractions start, and I jump in my car when active labor begins. Knock on wood, I haven’t missed a birth yet! When I arrive at the home/hospital/birthing center, I start shooting immediately and am focused on not just the mother but the tone of the entire room.

Everyone present at a birth plays a different and important role and there’s such a beauty in the dance of it. It’s like muscle memory, even for the first timers, something instinctual that kicks in and it’s amazing to experience. When I’m invited to capture a birth, everything else falls away. I’m not a mother, wife, or business owner. I’m a witness and a photographer. As the art critic John Berger said, “unlike any other visual image, a photograph is not a rendering, an imitation or an interpretation of its subject, but actually a trace of it. No painting or drawing, however naturalist, belongs to its subject in the way that a photograph does.” These beliefs are present in everything I do, from how I capture the tone of the room to editing.

Because of the nature of what I do, being with people in some of the most intimate moments of their lives, I’ve become close friends with several of my clients over the years. I treasure these relationships so much because they start from such a vulnerable and trusting place and have been some of the deepest bonds I’ve formed. Sometimes in these relationships I’ll ask what they do with the more private images I’ve captured of them, the ones that aren’t for framing or sharing online. They all say that these images are some of their most prized possessions, to be revisited in private and treasured forever. While as a photographer it can be hard for me to not share certain images I’m most proud of, I know that this process is not about me and is extremely personal. To me, this gets at the root of what I do. To create a space where my clients can be unguarded, unconcerned with performing for an audience, and give them access to their true selves.

From the birth mother:

“Having Heather photograph my birth was great. The only snafu (if you could call it that) was that our midwife’s style was to really monitor and let me surrender to the birth flow, so we weren’t talking or establishing what “stage” of labor I was in. Finally, my husband said “uh, is she in active labor? We’re supposed to let Heather know when she’s in active labor…” and the answer was “oh YEAH.”

In retrospect I kind of giggle thinking about that because I remember being in the birth tub and hearing that conversation, but being utterly incapable of engaging in it or responding. But I heard it and was directing all my energy to the arrival of Heather making sure she was present for the “good stuff.” I was immediately relieved when she arrived, though I doubt it showed at all. I wasn’t distracted at all by her presence.  She was completely unobtrusive and professional. I love that she spent a little time exploring our house and documenting some of the evidence that our baby was coming. I also appreciate that she snapped pictures of our dogs’ reactions. Everything felt so personal and tender.

When Nate and I first looked at the pictures, we cried happily the entire time. We crawled into our bed while Theo was asleep next to us and could not keep it together. We were blown away. It was very special that Heather chose some strong select shots to immediately share via her social media (with permission) and we were able to show those to folks very close to us: our midwife and her apprentice/doula, our parents, very close friends. However, we weren’t particularly inclined to share them on our social media. To this date, we both shared one photo each on our own pages, but I think that is because they feel incredibly intimate to us. It was a very special experience and we’ve let some folks into that space that we know are like-minded about birth, but otherwise we are somewhat protective of them.

I encouraged Heather from the first consultation to get the shot that documented the experience best, regardless of my modesty. It’s definitely a big cognitive leap for me to realize that just about anyone could see my entire body while in the middle of my birth. Birth is so human and not sexual, but we all have a lot of conditioning and baggage about how much of our body we share. I think this was actually a really positive part of my unraveling and reflecting.

Ultimately? We have not stopped telling people to hire a birth photographer. I’ve told every single person I’ve talked to that our experience was unparalleled and one of the most valuable investments through our first birth journey. They are one of my proudest and most valuable possessions. We have plans to select out and frame a few for our home (some of the less graphic) and may also make an album just for us. I want Theo to know that we made a lot of choices about his birth that, very thankfully, resulted in a positive and beautiful experience. I am pretty ecstatic about his birth and its outcome and having photos to remind us of how hard we worked and the ups/downs and surprises of the day helps with the memory and brings me a lot of joy. So many parts of birth are out of our control, and we tried to stay aware of that throughout, so getting through it AND having evidence is very rewarding.”

Heather is located in Austin, TX.

Post Author
Heather Gallagher
I was born and raised in Maryland where sign language was my first language and I thought I was deaf until the age of 4 (I'm not). I moved to NYC when I was 17 and have a BFA in photography from Pratt Institute. I have been professionally shooting for more than half my life and once almost died while on assignment in the red light district in Calcutta. I currently reside in Austin, TX and am a boy mom & brewery wife. I shoot full time, love whiskey and true crime and watch way too much tv. I am available for travel worldwide and I never check a bag.