Childbirth isn’t a picturesque process, but that didn’t stop Jennifer and Ben Stockwell from hiring someone to document the delivery of their firstborn.
Photographer Danica Donnelly joined the Stockwells at their home just as Jennifer’s contractions grew intense. An hour later, the Stockwells — along with Donnelly — were in a delivery room at the Minnesota Birth Center in Minneapolis.
During the 12 hours of labor, Donnelly barely left their side. It wasn’t until just after the break of dawn, when the family welcomed daughter Tilja, that Donnelly snapped her last picture, packed up her camera gear and went home.
The Stockwells are among a small but growing number of people who are hiring professional birth photographers to record their passage to parenthood. In doing so, they say, they’re defying the old notions of birth as solely a family affair.
“So much of our culture conditions women to fear childbirth,” Jennifer Stockwell said. “After months of preparation and education, having our birth professionally photographed seemed like a natural way to celebrate the beauty and power of the experience.”
Birth photography is just the latest of life’s most intimate moments to be captured by a professional’s lens. Over the past several years, photographers have become part of engagements (especially surprise engagements), and have been invited into some couples’ boudoirs for “morning after” images.
Now photographers, many of whom are former doulas or birth coaches, are being invited into the delivery room to produce high-quality photos instead of relying on an expectant dad to capture the moment.
“This is the most important day in your life,” said birth photographer Elizabeth Dahl. “When it comes to your kids, they’ll be there your entire life, and you cannot do [childbirth] over again.”
When Dahl started photographing births five years ago, there were only a few other photographers doing so. Now there are dozens, many of whom are members of the Minnesota Birth Photographers Association, a group Dahl formed. The association, based in the Twin Cities, is one of just a few in the nation.
Families that pay $650 to $1,000 for a basic photo package say they do so because childbirth, like a wedding, is a rite of passage, and one not easily repeated.
Still, it’s not for everyone.
“I had a lot of reactions like ‘Eww, that’s gross,’ ” Dahl said.
That’s because people assumed she took graphic pictures or intruded on the family, she said. But she insists that’s not the case. Dahl said the industry is adapting to bring in more customers, including shooting video and even capturing moms giving birth with makeup on. She said she and other birth photographers simply find and document the beauty of a powerful event.
“Sometimes at an expo I’ll get moms who say, ‘I’ll look horrible, I’ll be a mess.’ It’s really more about capturing an important day, like a wedding, that you won’t remember clearly,” said photographer Megan Crown.
Birth photography is most common among parents who want a nontraditional birth at home or at a birth center. Crown said about half of her business comes from home deliveries.
Lenoir Lochner, nurse manager at Hennepin County Medical Center’s Birth Center, has dealt with few professional birth photographers. Instead, she said, family members are the ones who are snapping pictures on their cellphones.
But birth photographers say they can offer more than just images. When needed, they also can provide emotional support to the parents. Jen Stockwell called Donnelly a “cheerleader,” saying she appreciated the words of encouragement Donnelly offered from the sidelines.
However, even if parents don’t need the extra perks of birth photographers, Dwyer said, they provide an essential service by documenting an event that’s packed with emotions.
“It’s incredible for parents to be able to relive that together … [and] to witness the arrival of their little one all over again,” she said.
Eric Best is a university student reporter on assignment with the Star Tribune.