Slate published an interview with me and a selection of my Birth Culture photographs. I’m so glad to have had the chance to explain why I care about this project, and to share the work widely. I’m amazed and happy about the response it’s gotten – 24,000 shares on Facebook!
Much like death, the subject of birth is often taboo, a fact of life that is rarely explored beyond established procedure. Proujansky has been fascinated by the various ways in which each culture she has explored approaches birth but said that in the United States, gender and generation often dominate the conversation.
“We have ideas about what women’s bodies are for and it’s not this,” she said about American views on birth. “You see a woman naked but her body is performing functions that are intense. Our culture has a weird thing about images of women’s bodies doing this kind of physical work that isn’t young and sexy; birth has elements of struggle, power, transformation and mortality that don’t fit with our ideas about women’s bodies: they’re ok to look at when they’re sexy but when they’re working it’s something else. Birth is uncontrolled and that freaks us out.”
She also feels it ties into the idea of how we view motherhood.
“We sometimes celebrate mothers and put them on a pedestal and they’re supposed to be self sacrificing with an endless well of love but we also have stereotypes about them being intellect free with snide jokes about mom jeans and soccer moms.”
I’ve been blogging for Every Mother Counts this month – they’re a great organization dedicated to education and advocacy for global maternal health. Here’s a link to the first post. I’m so pleased to be involved with EMC in their important work.
I took these photographs in 2006 and 2007 in the maternity ward of the Juan Pablo Pina Hospital in San Cristóbal, Dominican Republic.
I first visited the ward as a high school volunteer. I had expected to learn Spanish and see some babies, but I ended up working for two months inserting catheters and IVs, prepping women for Cesarean sections and watching women labor with instructions to call a doctor if the baby crowned.
Nine years later, I remembered those experiences with disbelief. I decided to photograph the ward, so I worked all year teaching photography in an inner city school, saved money for a plane ticket, and called old friends in San Cristóbal to see if they could recommend a hotel. They told me not to be ridiculous and picked me up at the airport, put me up in their home and took me to the hospital.
When I arrived at the ward, a nurse said by no means could I take any pictures. I started to see all of my plans crumbling around me, so I asked why not. She said I needed scrubs, of course. So pants were the only barrier to photographing women in labor, doctors performing Cesarean sections and whatever else might go on in an under-resourced hospital? I went to a used-clothing market and quickly bargained for a too-small shirt and voluminous pants, returned to the hospital and photographed births for the next three weeks. The next year I did the same, and so I started to photograph the culture of birth.
I shot the first part of the birth project in a public hospital in San Cristóbal, Dominican Republic. Dr. M. is an Ob/Gyn in a hospital with no hot water, intermittent electricity, and insufficient basic supplies like sheets. She was very generous in letting me follow her as she worked (and in soothing my homesickness by feeding me, making me laugh and taking me to a little town in the mountains for a break). Here are some pictures of her at work.