Birth photography sounds like it would be one of the most interesting careers, doesn’t it? At the same time, it also must be wildly unpredictable and crazy emotional! Add in the ability to blend seamlessly in an intimate, high-pressure environment, and — yes — birth photography would take some interesting skill sets!
So I am excited that Ashley offered to tell us more about it all. And let me warn you: I teared up at least three times when I read her thoughts. Be prepared. Whether you’ve had one baby or a few, or whether you’re still dreaming about it, or even if that’s nowhere near your goals, you’ll be moved at the artistry at Ashley’s experiences. Welcome, Ashley!
Q: Tell us about yourself and your family.
A: My family and I live on a pocket vest sized farm in Southwestern Vermont that my college beau, James and I have aptly named Cartwheel Farm. We use and abuse any opportunity to get punny with our last name CART – thus Cartwheel Farm and Blog a la Cart. There may be a “borrowed” grocery sign or two that’s found its way into our home – think “Please Return Your Cart Here” – welcoming you in our entryway. Together we parent our two daughters, Addison (Sunny), age five, and Courtland (Kaki) age two and a half, a super mutt Hanna, a new puppy, Gladdy who we welcomed into our family this fall after losing our beloved 3-legged dog Ursa to cancer, a potbelly pig aptly named Penelope and a flock of chickens. I am itching to add alpacas to our current brood of animals as I am a knitting addict and would love to learn to make my own stash of yarn…and James would love to save our bank account from the effects of this current addiction with some homemade yarn.
We were living in Los Angeles when our eldest daughter was born, and shortly after her birth decided to simplify and move back east closer to both of our families. Admittedly, we’re both thoroughly smitten with rural life and miss the freeways of L.A. not in the least, though I do miss the ocean desperately and the ability to nosh a #2 Animal Style at will. I turned 30 last year, and had you told my 20-year old self that my big “goals” in ten years would include mastering the art of tomato growing and learning to bake the most authentic loaf of French bread in my own kitchen, I would have called you crazy. And yet, I wouldn’t want it any other way.
Q: Your girls are four and two. I imagine both births were different in many ways, but can you describe the main differences?
A: It’s really amazing how a process that ultimately had the same result (two healthy baby girls) was so different with each of my daughters. I think that’s the incredible thing about all birth: it is simultaneously so deeply personal and unique and yet so very universal and connecting in nature.
Ultimately, my second birth was not only faster than my first, but I had the gift of experience on my side. The pain of contractions didn’t alarm me the second time around. I wasn’t scared of the pain, fearful that something was wrong, or that my body didn’t know what to do. I trusted my body the second time around in a way that it just not wholly possible with a firstborn.
My younger sister was with me for both births, and she said that the difference was palpable in my behavior between the two. With my firstborn, I was crying outward in pain and panic when the contractions became really intense, whereas with my second, I retreated inward, and hummed and buzzed and managed the contractions with control and trust. I remember thinking how peaceful and almost zen my second birth was, and I think while the pain was equally intense, I had a level of trust and confidence that were the gifts of my first birth.
Q: What do you wish you had known the first time that really saved you the second time?
A: What I wish I’d known was only really possible to know by going through the first experience. Again, it comes back to a faith and trust in my own body – something I wish for all pregnant women. Pregnancy can feel overwhelming and scary because we have so little say or control in what is happening to our bodies and how the entire experience plays out. I wish we weren’t so fearful of birth, and would trust ourselves more to have the strength and ability to withstand such an unbelievable, life-changing process.
I doubted myself with my first birth in a way I wish I hadn’t. It was so empowering to have a birth free from fear and filled with strength and confidence. But for me, that kind of birth experience was only possible after the experience of having my first child.
Q: After giving birth yourself, you’ve now become a birth photographer! How did that career begin?
A: I’d become more and more interested in photography and maternity/birth rather simultaneously. After my first daughter’s birth I reflected on how blind-sided I was by the experience. Despite lots of preparation, I was overwhelmed that a process that had brought each and every person here on Earth to life could feel so mysterious and misunderstood. I started my blog in the early months of parenting Sunny to try and work through this disconnect I felt about maternity and birth and motherhood, and in developing that space, I began to use photography more and more to tell my story and share my perspective.
Given that I am so invested in helping demystify birth and helping expecting mothers be less fearful and more inspired and empowered by the process before them, I realized that photographing those experiences in a way that shared the full process – from the long hours of the labor to the gripping intensity of pushing to the relief and joy and magic of welcoming a new life – was a really intimate and beautiful way to do so. Friends and acquaintances welcomed me to be a part of their births, so I was able to get some experience and build a portfolio to then offer my services more broadly.
I will say, I was not expecting to be so emotionally exhausted after the experience. The first birth I photographed was a long hard labor that resulted in a C-section after many hours of work. I am admittedly a very sensitive and emotional person, so I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised when I found myself sobbing on the phone to James as I drove myself home at three in the morning after over 14 hours with the family. It was a roller coaster!
And I love that this work so inspires and moves me, but it can also be rather debilitating when I need to go home to my family and children and day job. Since then, I do a better job of mentally preparing myself for the experience ahead, and put myself in a mindset that is as flexible and adaptable as possible. I think the most difficult thing about the work is never knowing how long the experience is going to be. A labor could be two hours or two days! The unpredictable nature makes it simultaneously challenging but also completely thrilling!
Q: What do you love most about photographing new parents during the process?
A: It’s amazing how much joy and laughter and love is at the heart of labor. While women are managing extreme pain, there are also so many gorgeous moments of connection and humor and peace.
I love watching partners support their loved ones during labor. The way they hold those partners in their pain, and breathe with them, and encourage them with warmth and love and confidence. It’s truly profound to be able to watch people in such vulnerability. It’s what I love most about birth photography: the uniquely authentic human moments.
A woman in labor does not notice or care about my presence, and so the images I capture are so very untainted and unaffected by the camera…which is rare for a photographer to experience, as I always notice a shift in energy when a person realizes that my lens in pointed their way. Not so for a woman in a labor and a partner focused on that woman in labor!
And of course, watching parents meet their children for the first time is truly breathtaking. I am laid bare every time, tears are always streaming down my face behind the camera. Just thinking about those moments gives me the chills. It’s magical to behold. And such a refreshing and inspiring outlook on human life.
Q: You’ve seen your share of couples and their dynamics, haven’t you? What’s the best advice you could give partners who are trying their best to help?
A: Listen to your partner and don’t be offended if she tells you to leave her the F alone or shut the heck up! Labor is a wild ride, so I think partners who are calm and positive and encouraging and adaptable offer the best support. What a woman wants in the way of support during one contraction may be completely different from the next. I’ve seen partners get anxious when the labor wasn’t progressing or baby’s heart rate was dipping, and that anxiety really impacts the woman in labor and can make the situation worse. The medical staff are there to worry about the health and wellness of mom and baby, you’re there to provide love and strength, so try not to worry or stress as that only makes the situation worse for mom.
It’s amazing how the energy of the room really impacts the labor process, so I encourage anyone in a birth room to always keep calm, positive, loving energy at the fore.
Q: What would you tell women who are too self-conscious to have a photographer in the birthing room? And how do you stay out of the way but still in the middle of it?
A: I absolutely understand that some women would not want that kind of deeply personal and private experience documented by a stranger or impacted in any way by the presence of a birth photographer. Although, I can say from both having had a birth photographer at my first daughter’s birth, and now doing the work myself, a woman in labor does not notice that presence – especially during the most intense moments. Learning from my own birth photographer, I am always careful to stay out of the way. I try to be adaptable and flexible and realize that I may not always have the best angle for a shot, but that that is not the most important thing happening in the room.
I also have acquired the appropriate camera gear to be able to shoot in low light. This is so important, as the last thing a laboring woman wants (or a newborn baby for that matter!) is flashing lights! I can capture close-ups from a distance. (For those interested, I shoot with the Canon 5D Mark III with the 50mm f/1.4 almost exclusively in birth settings.)
I will also say that the personal value of those images – those moments as I met my child for the first time, those moments as I truly became a mother and my husband a father – are completely irreplaceable. I watch the footage at least once a year and am so grateful for that kind of gorgeously moving documentation of arguably the most important experience of my life to date. I would highly highly recommend a birth photographer that can help capture those life-changing moments. And if they’re a good birth photographer, they’ll be able to do it in a way that preserves the privacy of the mom in labor while still capturing the essence of the experience. Definitely preview a birth photographer’s portfolio and work before hiring, as you’ll have a good sense of their style and abilities right away.
I’ve also heard the argument that a birth photographer sets up a mom to worry about whether or not she looks good while in labor. Certainly, the last thing I want is for a laboring woman to be painting her face with make up during transition, worrying about looking her best as her baby comes into the world! I think anyone that looks at birth photography will see that a woman is truly radiant while in labor – strong and uninhibited and powerful – and that that beauty and strength really do come through in the images without make up or styling.
Q: Are hospital staff receptive of your presence? Or are you sometimes considered a hindrance?
A: I have yet to have hospital staff give me a hard time. All of the women with whom I’ve worked have spoken to the staff and midwives/OBs about their wish for my presence, and everyone has been very receptive. I try to make myself as adaptable and easy-going and unobtrusive as possible. I have been asked to leave the room when procedures like an epidural are being done. And I have not been allowed to be present for the C-section that resulted from one birth I attended. But the nurse was wonderful about bringing me in to meet the baby and capture those early moments with dad once the surgery was complete.
I am careful to be sure that I am never in the way of all the medical staff and the loved ones that are the most important players in the room. While that may mean that I don’t always have the best angle or the most ideal lighting, it is far more important that those people are where they need to be in the room. It’s about being flexible and working with what the situation presents. It’s part of what makes the work so exciting and captivating. But of course the medical staff and woman’s partner/loved ones in the room are the most important figures, so I am sure that I am never in their way or distracting them from the important work of attending to the laboring mom.
Q: Best photo or moment you’ve ever taken…
A: My absolute favorite moment, though it’s arguably not my best photograph, is one of a doula beaming down upon a laboring woman as she is pushing her baby into the world. That moment was so unbelievably powerful. The doula was so completely focused on getting the mom through that unthinkable pain and just radiating love and light and strength and power. During each contraction, she would press her face into the side of the woman’s head and whisper quiet words of encouragement and love while the mother screamed in agony. It was so moving, the reverence with which the doula looked upon and respected the laboring mom. That image will stick with me always when I think about the kind of strength and support I wish for all laboring mothers.
And of course, I love the images I capture of partners supporting women in the throes of a contraction, or the unexpected smiles that erupt between contractions, the first images of new life and new families. But I particularly love stringing all those still images together to really tell a story, because labor is a process, it’s work, and not just about the end result. To be able to document the process and piece that story together is the most rewarding part of the work. It is truly humbling to capture the welcoming of new life and the making of mothers and fathers and families.
Q: You’ve seen a lot of women become a mother. What stands out the most for you?
A: What I’ve loved experiencing the most is that every woman responds so differently and yet there is a certain universality to it all. I’ve seen women speechless, I’ve seen women in tears, I’ve seen women cry out with joy, I’ve seen women humbled with gratitude, I’ve seen women exhausted and overwhelmed – but each and every one of them is so palpably consumed by love and relief. I always shoot those first moments in live video, as women work through those early moments with their baby and react in any number of ways.
My favorite footage from my own births have been of that first two minutes with my babies, and being able to witness how I myself reacted for each one. And I love being able to provide that for the families that I document – an amazing capture of their child’s first minutes in the world.
Q: Did you have a birth photographer?
A: I did, although it was complete happenstance! I decided to hire a doula while pregnant with my oldest child as I was the first of my close friends to have children and I felt like I needed the extra support and knowledge to navigate the experience. My doula was friends with a local LA photographer who was looking to break in to birth photography. She needed images for her portfolio, so offered to shoot Sunny’s birth for free in exchange for being able to use those images in her public portfolio. I was completely open to the idea but wasn’t sure what to expect. At the time, I’d never heard of birth photography and had the same reservations that the photographs would all be pictures of me screaming in pain.
Of course, once Briana sent me the images from the day, I was completely blown away by the moments that she captured. I’m moved to tears every time I revisit her footage of that experience.
With my second daughter, we’d moved to Vermont and there weren’t any “birth” photographers in the area. My husband and sister did the best they could to capture some images with the camera, but ultimately, it pales in comparison to the documentation I have from Sunny’s birth. If I were to have more children, I’d likely try to convince one of the local photographers that I’ve since befriended to brave shooting their births. I am just so captivated by the moments that transpire while women are in the throes of bringing life into the world. I love seeing the way my sister and husband supported me during that process. And the live footage of me meeting my girls for the first time is truly irreplaceable.
Ashley, that was lovely. Your descriptions and photos brought back a lot of memories. The photos from June’s birth are some of my favorites. Thank you so much for demystifying the fine art of delivering babies, and truly for removing a lot of the fear surrounding the process.
Friends, I really want to hear from those of you who documented your births either professionally or personally! Please share your “I wish I had known…” stories with the rest of us, and any experience that might make us laugh or cry a little! It’s why I love this series so much — all the shared experiences really do make us stronger!