Birth Culture on

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.”

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Mayan Abdominal Massage

Elsa Gonzalez Ayala is a traditional midwife in the small town of Chunhuhub in Quintana Roo, Mexico. She performs monthly prenatal massages for her patients, delivers babies in hammocks, and massages women in the weeks following birth to help their uteri contract. She recently adopted a baby, Juan Diego, who was born at seven months to a substance-abusing woman who disappeared soon afterward.

Although she practices traditional Mayan medicine, Doña Elsa is a devout Catholic who brought her son to be baptized, and she visits the local clinic for Western medicine. She showed the students from CASA Midwifery School how to perform abdominal massages, using this pregnant photographer as a demonstration model.

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CASA Midwifery Students Intercultural Midwifery Exchange

After their presentations at the Universidad Intercultural Maya, the midwifery students went to study in Mayan villages. Ema, Angie, Carmen Susana, Abi, Lupita and Elisa stayed with traditional midwife Doña Elsa in the small town of Chunhuhub. These students range in age from 17 to 36, and come from varied backgrounds: a performance artist, a small-town high school graduate, a nurse, an artisan who spent years traveling through Latin America.

Doña Elsa practices several kinds of alternative medicine, including herbal baths, ceremonies, chiropractic adjustments, and emotional and spiritual counseling, as well as referring patients to the local health center at times. The students stayed in her medical facility, watching her attend patients with fevers, depression and high blood pressure. Meanwhile, they offered prenatal visits at the health center, gave talks on contraception, and showed traditional midwives how to use analog thermometers, plastic umbilical cord clamps, and other equipment in a kit provided by the school.

Next post: traditional Mayan abdominal massage.

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CASA Midwifery Students on a Journey

After preparing their public health presentations – including hand-sewn model pelvises, breasts and amniotic sacs – the students from CASA midwifery school boarded a run-down bus, ate American cheese and hot pepper sandwiches, and rode 32 hours from their school in San Miguel de Allende to the small city of José Maria Morelos in the Southern state of Quintana Roo. There all 40 students slept on the floor of a classroom at the Universidad Intercultural Maya and gave presentations to local traditional Mayan midwives about prenatal resuscitation, post-partum hemorrhage and other topics. The traditional midwives, who had learned from relatives and practiced for many years, taught the students about home births in hammocks, herbal medicines, and their own approaches to obstetric emergencies and prenatal care.

Next post: homestays with traditional midwives.

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CASA Midwifery School in Mexico

Here are some photos from my most recent trip for my Birth and Culture project.

In this first post, students from CASA, Mexico’s only government-accredited midwifery training program, prepared for a trip to rural villages where they studied with Mayan traditional midwives. At their school in San Miguel de Allende, they practiced giving presentations on women’s health and responding to birth emergencies. And in CASA’s hospital, a local traditional midwife delivered a woman’s fifth baby.

Next post: the journey.

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