Megan Bowen of Snap Life Photography has her camera bag packed at all times. When she goes to functions, she and her husband take two separate cars so she can get away at a moment’s notice. She always has her phone close to her, especially within weeks of when one of her clients is scheduled to go into labor. Just like nurses are the unsung heroes of the delivery room, there is another group of people to tip a hat off to: birth photographers.
“When I was in high school, I had a major passion for two things: photography and the medical field,” says Bowen. “I would have never thought in a million years those two would wind up together.”
Bowen, who worked for two major photo studios throughout her career, quickly became overwhelmed in the day-to-day craze of the industry: shooting weddings, engagements, parties, families, head shots and glamour back-to-back. So she decided to ditch the studio for something she thought was more impactful.
“I was on Facebook and found a post from the International Association of Professional Birth Photographers. I immediately fell in love with the images and was completely baffled by why I never thought that someone was doing this. I took on my first birth of a client who had booked a maternity and newborn session with me to try it out. It was all downhill from there.”
Bowen is not alone in her passion: birth photography has grown exponentially in the past several years. The International Association of Professional Birth Photographers now has 860 members worldwide and is growing on a daily basis. Bowen mentioned she saw a post on Facebook from Birth Without Fear that posed the question: ‘What is the one thing you would have done in pregnancy and birth?’ The leading responses surprised her: To hire a birth photographer and to take more pictures during labor and birth. Gradually, photographers from all walks of life have jumped on the bandwagon, adding birth photography to their services, and some even making it their full-time career. Take for instance, longtime friends and lifestyle photographers Kelly Smith of Daphne Photo Studio and Melanie Pace of Loft3pd, who joined forces to create Beautiful Beginnings Birth Photography. The self-proclaimed ‘birth junkies,’ who both have two children of their own, decided to combine their passion with their profession.
“We shot each other’s second births, and it was so cool to allow our husbands to be more present and supportive of us laboring,” says the duo, who aim to get both the mother and father involved in the process.
“Sometimes the dads don’t get it, but after the birth, they 100 percent love that they had us there. We tell them we can be as supportive as they want or a fly on the wall,” say Smith and Pace. “Since we are with couples for so long, there is a bond that is quickly developed in the delivery rooms. By the end they are our friends, not just a client.” Which makes sense, since labors are unpredictable and can last for hours and even days; Bowen once spent 74 hours on-location during a birth.
“Sometimes we do what I call graceful labors, and that’s ok. It’s my job to be there no matter what happens,” Bowen says. “You definitely need a good bit of patience to be a birth photographer. It can sometimes be a long haul.”
And this holds true before, during and after a shoot. Paige Driscoll of Santa Cruz Birth Photography has her clients check in with her in the weeks leading up to their due date.
“I am on-call for at least two weeks before a client’s due date until up to two weeks after,” she says. “Birth happens when it wants to, so there is no planning for it.”
Driscoll, who is currently pregnant with her fifth child, feels she can relate to her clients on a deeper level because she has been through it herself.
“I can empathize with how they are feeling and I understand the process of how everything unfolds during the labor and delivery,” she says. “There is nothing more special than watching a baby take their first breath.”
As for getting up close and personal, most birth photographers have their clients sign a contract stating what can and cannot be shot, ensuring the mother’s safety and comfort. Being a ‘fly on the wall’ is a common theme with this type of photography, so that there is no posing, just photographers capturing real life moments, naturally.
“I try to be like a fly on the wall, never intruding upon my client’s birth space,” says Driscoll.
Bowen thinks it is important to get to know the soon-to-be parents ahead of time, and ask plenty of questions.
“I really try to be very respectful of the process and ask lots of questions prior to the birth with both parents,” she says. “Knowing their personalities and wishes for their birth experience is very important.” And just as with other sensitive content, advertising can be done, but tastefully. Pace and Smith blog everything they shoot, unless the mother specifically asks them not to.
“We are careful of angles and modesty while shooting so the mama never feels violated on the Internet.” Discussions of how in-depth the photographer gets is always discussed ahead of time, so there are no surprises. Bowen allows her clients to choose whether they want to keep their images private or not.
“If I do show images I keep them very PG,” she says. “Most of my clients find me through word of mouth, seeing my work of someone they knew, search engine and sometimes Facebook advertising. It also helps knowing midwives, obstetricians, doulas, and other care providers and being plugged into the local birth community.” Bowen even became a birth doula to help become a better birth photographer.
“I have a huge heart for women and what they are going through,” says Bowen, who witnessed her first birth at age 10 and has been enamored with it ever since.
Although this profession can be time-consuming and stressful, the payoff is worth it; especially when there are welcomed surprises.
“I was prepared for Nora to be a stillborn,” says Pace of her most memorable shoot. “When she came out screaming, I witnessed more than the miracle of childbirth. It was incredible, and she is now going on two years old!”
“There is so much beauty in birth that is taken for granted, and being able to show that beauty is just amazing,” says Bowen. “I am in love with my job.”
Driscoll, whose photography hobby turned into a full-time career after taking pictures of her kids, loves reliving the miracle of birth through her shoots.
“I still feel that ‘birth high’ as if I was giving birth myself, which is such an amazing feeling—even behind the camera.”
Birth photography is an emerging field, and one that requires patience, education and focus. For more information on birth photography, visit the International Association of Professional Birth Photographers website.