What Giving Birth Looks Like Around the World 

The Photo Blog
Sept. 5 2014 1:15 PM

What Giving Birth Looks Like Around the World 

A patient with her newborn baby at the Juan Pablo Pina public hospital in San Cristóbal, Dominican Republic.
A patient with her newborn baby at the Juan Pablo Pina public hospital in San Cristóbal, Dominican Republic.

Alice Proujansky

Alice Proujansky said she felt prepared before giving birth to her son in 2012. By then, she had already photographed nearly 15 births in the United States and around the world and said she felt ready for the transformative experience.

As a young child, Proujansky had witnessed the births of both her sister and brother, but was more fascinated by the wallpaper in the room, choosing to photograph that instead. She took her first photograph of a live birth in 2006 while visiting a hospital in the Dominican Republic where she had previously volunteered during a semester abroad. It turned out to be a powerful experience for her, one that would ultimately shape her experience as a photographer and begin an ongoing series about birth titled “Birth Culture.”

Although she didn’t set out to become a natal photographer, Proujansky is interested in working on projects about women and said for one reason or another, she finds herself photographing in the delivery room.

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“It’s so interesting to me,” she said. “It’s so exciting to be part of a transformational process; it has a rhythm to it in that there's a probable series of events … but every time it’s different.”

“The experience is strange and powerful and frightening and it can be really beautiful.”

Traditional Mayan midwife Elsa Gonzalez Ayala shows CASA Midwifery School students how to perform a traditional Mayan massage used to shrink a woman's uterus and reduce post-partum bleeding - on Nelsi Marvella Tuk Balam.CASA Midwifery School students traveled to the rural village of Chunhuhub to learn traditional methods from traditional Mayan midwives and to teach them contemporary practices in exchange.
Traditional Mayan midwife Elsa Gonzalez Ayala shows CASA Midwifery School students how to perform a traditional Mayan massage used to shrink a woman's uterus and reduce post-partum bleeding.

Alice Proujansky

Laura Mejia, 38 labors at the Birth Place, assisted by her husband, Brandon Smith and doula Stephanie Abdullah-Simmons.All patients at this birth center in Winter Garden, FL deliver with midwives unless a complication arises, in which case they are transferred to a hospital. The process offers a model of safe, low-cost, respectful maternity care that is unusual in the United States, where most women give birth with doctors and outcomes are comparatively poor among developed nations.
Laura Mejia, 38, labors at the Birth Place, assisted by her husband, Brandon Smith, and doula, Stephanie Abdullah-Simmons. All patients at this birth center in Winter Garden, Florida, deliver with midwives unless a complication arises, in which case they are transferred to a hospital.

Alice Proujansky

Midwife Dorothy Igoro Chinyere examines a patient immediately following delivery at the Doctors Without Borders-run Aiyetoro Health Centre.
Midwife Dorothy Igoro Chinyere examines a patient immediately following delivery at the Doctors Without Borders–run Aiyetoro Health Centre in Lagos, Nigeria.

Alice Proujansky

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.”

A visitor holds Habibat Adeboye's baby shortly after delivery at the Doctors Without Borders-run Aiyetoro Health Centre in Lagos, Nigeria. The clinic offers free care to women who live in a slum and have poor access to health care. At the time, federal doctors were on strike.
A visitor holds Habibat Adeboye’s baby shortly after delivery at the Doctors Without Borders–run Aiyetoro Health Centre in Lagos, Nigeria. The clinic offers free care to women who live in a slum and have poor access to health care. At the time, federal doctors were on strike.

Alice Proujansky

A nurse inserts Megan Tudryn's IV in preparation for an epidural at the Baystate Franklin Medical Center in Greenfield, MA. The staff encourages women to make their own decisions about pain management during labor.With few exceptions, midwifery forms the basis of the hospital's obstetric care, while doctors provide backup and a tertiary care hospital an hour away consults.
A nurse inserts Megan Tudryn’s IV in preparation for an epidural at the Baystate Franklin Medical Center in Greenfield, Massachusetts. The staff encourages women to make their own decisions about pain management during labor. With few exceptions, midwifery forms the basis of the hospital’s obstetric care.

Alice Proujansky

Jen Carnig holds her son Wiley James Carnig Lavoie immediately after his birth at home as her husband Dan Lavoie, daughter Olive Carnig-Lavoie and best friend Lisa Johnson, look on.
Jen Carnig holds her son Wiley James Carnig Lavoie immediately after his birth at home as her husband, Dan Lavoie, daughter, Olive Carnig-Lavoie, and best friend, Lisa Johnson, look on.

Alice Proujansky

Since women of previous generations often delivered in their homes, birth was typically a shared experience. Today, women usually learn few details about the birth process from their mothers and grandmothers and instead only begin to understand the process once their friends begin having babies.

“When our friends start having babies that’s often the first time we talk about miscarriage, birth or fertility problems,” she said. “I started this project when I was younger and my friend was pregnant because I thought ‘I don’t really understand what birth is, what’s this thing that’s likely to be a big part of my life?’ I also wanted to photograph a transformative part of being human that wasn't death.”

As a photographer, Proujansky said she has the freedom to be nosy and curious and to ask to be a witness to such an intimate moment. Her goal for the project is to create images that are both literal documents about birth but also open up a larger conversation about how to improve the process since she points out on her website that worldwide there were 287,000 maternal deaths in 2010 and that the United States has the highest first-day infant mortality rate of any industrialized nation.

“I’m not a midwife or a health expert but I am a documentary photographer and I want to find images that speak about something both literal and symbolic,” she said. “I should leave that (how to improve the process) to a public health expert: my area is asking questions and looking at the larger ideas behind birth and women's work.”

"Birth Culture" will be on view at United Photo Industries in Brooklyn, New York, from Nov. 6 through 28. There will be an opening reception on Nov. 6.

Maternity patients' relatives wait outside the maternity ward at the Juan Pablo Pina public hospital in San Cristóbal, Dominican Republic. Female relatives are allowed to enter the ward after delivery, when they care for their family members, but men are not allowed to enter.
Patients’ relatives wait outside the maternity ward at the Juan Pablo Pina public hospital in San Cristóbal, Dominican Republic. Female relatives are allowed to enter the ward after delivery, when they care for their family members, but men are not allowed to enter.

Alice Proujansky

David Rosenberg is the editor of Slate’s Behold blog. He has worked as a photo editor for 15 years and is a tennis junkie. Follow him on Twitter.

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