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Documenting Birth: A Photographer's Perspective

Photojournalist Alice Proujansky has been documenting births since 2006. Today, we bring you images from a delivery she photographed in Greenfield, Mass., along with Proujansky's perspective on photographing such intimate scenes.

How did you first get inspired to photograph births?

Alice Proujansky: When I was in high school, I spent two months learning Spanish and volunteering at an underserved hospital maternity ward in San Cristóbal, Dominican Republic. My role was inserting catheters, shaving patients before operations, putting in an IV (it was harder than it looked, and I came sweatily close to passing out), translating for Canadian medical students and watching a patient, with instructions to call for a doctor if the baby crowned.

In 2006, I went back to the hospital maternity ward in San Cristóbal and explained that I had volunteered there years ago and would like to photograph their work. The nurses said no: I wasn't wearing scrubs, they explained, so how did I think I would be allowed into an operating room? I went to a used clothing market and found an enormous pair of pants and a too-small shirt and went back to the hospital, where I started photographing abortions, cesarean sections and vaginal deliveries in a hospital with no hot water, periodic electricity outages, and a shortage of basic supplies including sheets.

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Since then, I have photographed Nigerian midwives in a Doctors Without Borders clinic in Lagos, midwifery-based care in a Navajo Nation-run hospital with the lowest cesarean section rate in Arizona, and a hospital in Massachusetts using an innovative collaborative care model.

What makes each birth different and special to photograph?

The majority of the time I spend photographing birth is actually spent waiting: waiting for patients who are willing to be photographed; eating snacks to stay awake; waiting for labor to progress; watching terrible television with families; and napping in strange places.

Midwife Magdalene Antill supports Meg Tudryn while a physician inserts an epidural during her delivery at The Birthplace in Greenfield, Mass. Courtesy of Alice Proujansky hide caption

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Courtesy of Alice Proujansky

My first opportunity to photograph birth came when I was 7 and I watched my mother give birth to my sister at Baystate Franklin Medical Center, the Massachusetts hospital where I photographed Meg Tudryn's delivery. My parents gave me a little blue plastic camera, but I just photographed a painting of pastel-colored flowers and some curtains. I think I've gotten better since then.

Each birth I've photographed has been inconceivable: a woman with a big belly comes in, and at some point there is suddenly another person in the room. There's a rhythm to birth, but the specifics are different every time. Some women seem to go inside themselves and focus, moaning or even just shaking their heads at the pain while other women scream.

Access to medical supplies, cultural traditions, personal beliefs and hospital policies all shape the births, but there is always an astonishing moment when a head pushes out of a woman and a baby slips out into the room. It's unbelievable.

What goes through your mind as a photojournalist when you are there?

The first time I photographed a cesarean section, I was a little overwhelmed by the smells and the blood: watching a scalpel cut open the inside of a person is jarring! I wasn't photographing on assignment, so for a minute I doubted what I was even doing there. But I reminded myself to quiet down and just photograph, and when I lifted the camera up to my eye, I was in a familiar place: composing pictures, organizing what I was looking at, finding expressions and gestures that told the story. I was both insulated from the situation and experiencing it more deeply than before.

Meg Tudryn holds her newborn daughter, Annalia McKay Tudryn. Photojournalist Alice Proujansky has been documenting births around the world since 2006. Courtesy of Alice Proujansky hide caption

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Courtesy of Alice Proujansky

Meg Tudryn holds her newborn daughter, Annalia McKay Tudryn. Photojournalist Alice Proujansky has been documenting births around the world since 2006.

Courtesy of Alice Proujansky

I feel really good when I'm photographing births. I'm glad to be able to tell the stories that I see, and I feel most like myself when I'm taking pictures. And every time a baby gets born I get a little choked up, to be honest.

What is your most memorable moment?

Meg Tudryn asked me to photograph her delivery after seeing photographs I'd taken of a colleague's birth. She's a nurse at Baystate Franklin Medical Center, where I had been photographing births for a few months. So when Meg called to say she was in labor, I quickly got in the car, drank a lot of black tea and raced up to the hospital, which is about three hours away. When I got to the maternity ward, I saw a newborn in a bassinet and my heart sank: I was sure I'd missed the birth, and I opened the door to congratulate the new parents. But the room felt calm and focused, and Meg was laboring in the tub with the support of her husband, a doula, her mom, friends and a midwife. The experience was intimate and moving, and I was so happy to be there.

See more of Proujansky's photographs from The Birthplace on her blog. She is a freelance photojournalist based in Brooklyn, N.Y.