Tag Archives: birth photography

Birth: This is Shakirah’s Story
The Birth of ‘Abd al-Matin, 6 October 2015

It was Lana Petersen who connected myself to Shakirah and Ya’eesh. I met with them in their home in Seekoeivlei and was immediately impressed with their sense of confidence and trust in each other, themselves and the process. We discussed their expectations and any concerns or ideas surrounding my presence and that of the camera in their birthing space. They were so open and trusting which left me feeling excited to be present in their process.


The experience of witnessing and documenting them was such an honour and left me on an incredible high. The images, I believe, tell the story just as it was that morning. I asked Shakirah to share her ideas around birth as well as her experience with me, this makes up most of the text below in-between the photographs.


I am an introvert and felt the potential threat to the progress of my labour, by unfamiliar surroundings and strangers in my personal space, to be a very real one. I did not want to birth my baby into the artificially lit, cold, clinical confines of a hospital ward, in a building housing sick and suffering people.


I believe that the act of birthing a baby is a natural physiological process, that the body is intrinsically equipped for and that it is not a medical condition. I also did not want my brand new baby to be handled roughly by birth attendants who did not view the process as spiritual but merely as routine.


I was also alarmed by the fact that the overwhelming majority of, otherwise healthy, young women I knew, were having their babies delivered by Caesarean section and not by choice. This made me very sceptical of the mainstream medical fraternity’s motivation for performing C-sections.


I was afraid of possibly having to undergo major abdominal surgery because performing a C-section made more financial sense or because my labour was taking ‘too long’ to progress. I did not want to feel disempowered by having my right to choose encumbered.


So when we found out that we were pregnant again, in January this year, I started doing research on the local homebirthing industry, birthing centres and MOU’s. I searched the web for information on local homebirths and found the site homebirth.org.za, which had a directory listing midwives, doulas, birthing centres and antenatal classes.

It was also through an online article that I discovered the concept of lotus birthing, where the placenta remains attached to the baby until the umbilical cord dries and detaches naturally, usually within 3 to 5 days. There are many health benefits associated with delaying cord clamping to allow the transfusion of blood from the placenta to the baby, to complete.


It also tied in with the theory of birth without violence, where it is believed that our birth affects the rest of our lives and I wanted the birth experience to be as gentle, welcoming and reassuring for our baby as possible and therefore the decision for my husband to catch him was also a natural one.

If we could and hadn’t needed the reassurance of experienced birth attendants, with this being our first baby, we would have chosen to do an unassisted birth, as the baby was conceived with just the two of us and the birth was the culmination of that intensely private process.


When I broke the news to my family that we wanted a homebirth, it was met with much resistance and judgment. They were concerned for mine and the baby’s safety, believing that hospitals were the safest places to birth. I initially succumbed to the pressure and booked with the local government MOU, where I went for most of my checkups. Every time I attended an appointment, a different midwife would perform my checkup. It felt very impersonal. With the large volumes of women attending, it would take most of the day and we would be herded through the hallways, to the various rooms, like cattle.


Shakirah went into labour on Friday evening on 3rd October, a long and exhausting progress which lasted until her baby’s birth at dawn on the 6th. Lana Peterson, her birth attendant, arrived at 9:30pm on the 5th as labour began to become more and more intense.


The night seemed to draw on forever with the pain intensifying and my back feeling like it was breaking and my tummy feeling like it was on fire, with each contraction. By 2am I started wailing, tearless, high pitched wails, while still rocking back and forth like a patient in a mental asylum, anticipating and dreading each contraction. I was doing the exact thing I was taught not to do. I started feeling fear and anxiety and it only increased my pain. Lana coached me to make low, guttural sounds but it was of no use. I was too far gone and started begging to be taken to hospital because I needed the pain to be numbed.


Lana had made contact with Lydia (Sr. Lydia Du Toit is a Midwife), who arrived shortly, at just after 5am, Tuesday 6 October. They both checked the bath water with torches and confirmed that my waters had broken. Lydia then requested that I get out of the bath so she could check me. She then started coaching me to push, while I held onto Ya’eesh for dear life, first laying on the bed then squatting on the floor being supported under both my arms. She told me to push like I was sitting on the toilet. I was repeating that I couldn’t do it and squirming through the pain. She spoke with authority and demanded my attention and explained to me what it was she needed me to do and how she needed me to do it. I obliged and started feeling my baby move into the birth canal and started feeling the urge to bear down spontaneously which happened simultaneously me making a low guttural sound.



I arrived just before the break of dawn. Shakirah was drained and exhausted, rocking and groaning in the middle of the bed with Ya’eesh supporting her so lovingly through each contraction. The room was filled with warm intense colours and she was wearing a ing flowing robe. The whole scene was very intimate, and very beautiful. Light was slowly seeping into the room and with the suns rising, so she birthed her baby, it was surreal.



I reached in between my legs and felt his head, which felt unusually soft and squishy. I heard him make a sound too. Then a few more pushes and his body followed quite quickly.

I remember hearing, “Quickly, the baby’s coming!” Ya’eesh caught him and I heard him crying then I got told that he would be passed through my legs.


The moment I saw him I was overcome with emotion and laughed and cried and kissed him at the same time. It felt as if everything disappeared for that second and it was just us. He was covered in slimy blood and I was kneeling in a puddle of blood and goo but none of that mattered.


I looked over at Ya’eesh who was crying and kissed him and looked up and saw my mom, who it seemed, had appeared out of nowhere and she was crying too. It was a beautiful and emotional moment and it made the pain disappear in an instant and breathed new life into me.



I am totally satisfied with the whole experience and believe it couldn’t have happened any other way. I got my natural homebirth, with the support of two phenomenal, experienced women, whom I could not have done it without and my husband got to support me and catch our baby and my mom got to see her grandson as soon as he was born and this amazing event was documented for us to share with our beautiful boy one day.


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An Interview with Two South African Midwives | Doulas

I met Ruth Ehrhardt and Lana Petersen at one of their Home Birth Gatherings at the end of last year which I attended in order to learn more about pregnancy and birthing experiences for South African women.

I later contacted them and asked if they would be willing to meet and discuss some more questions and ideas I had around the subject.
We met at Marianne Littlejohns birthing clinic, Mtwana Birth House, in Muizenberg.


We talked about a number of different things revolving around what they do as well as my interest in some issues I’ve noticed related to the subject of pregnancy and birth for women.
How long have you been interested in birth and what made you decide to make it your vocation?

Lana: For me, my interest started when I worked in a primary health care facility where mother and their newborns would attend the clinic for postnatal care. I would hear their birth stories which ranged from ecstatic to traumatic. I became obsessed with everything related to pregnancy & birth when I was trying to conceive my 1st child and even more so once I had given birth – which was a life-changing experience, I knew I had been bitten with the oxytocin bug and needed to be around labouring women….I then trained as a doula and as demand grew, left my work at the clinic to pursue attending births full-time – best decision ever!

Ruth: Even though my mother was a midwife, I was completely uninterested in birth and babies (I think I was very self absorbed and selfish beforehand) until I had my own first birth and that experience completely transformed me. Wow! What an experience – eye opening, scary, empowering, enriching, beautiful, angry, painful, ecstatic, peaceful, energetic, strong, pathetic, humbling, awesome…I could go on.
And throughout…: This calm, quiet presence of my mother holding me, reassuring me with a soft touch, or a soft gaze.
Afterwards I thought, “I wanna do that!”

What is your personal birth philosophy?

Ruth: The more I experience working with pregnant, labouring, birthing and new mothers, the more I feel that my role, more than anything, is to provide a feeling of safety and security. It is not about giving birth in a particular way, or any particular outcome, but ensuring, as much as possible, that the mother and baby bond is intact and that the mother feels secure in her bond and ability to parent this baby.
I walk away after the birth. The new mother has to parent this child, and just as she innately knows where the best place is to birth that child, she knows instinctively what the needs of that child are.

My role is to protect that space for mother and baby, so that mother and baby can safely find their way.


Which are the most significant moments of a birth for you?

Lana: Geez, there are so many….

When a mother has put plans in place for her optimum birth and she feels excited and empowered for the experience of labour.

Moments when mothers feel desperate and afraid but then go ahead and do it anyway.


I absolutely love the moments when a woman is  naked and labouring hard and then suddenly, she looks like a Goddess! – breathtakingly beautiful!

The faces of fathers/siblings/extended family seeing a baby being born…those moments have brought me to tears often.

And finally – that moment when a mum realizes “she did it”….best thing ever.


Ruth: The moment the mother realises that only SHE can give birth to this baby, only SHE.

And when she accepts that and finally surrenders to the process, it is quite miraculous and beautiful what unfolds.

Ruth said about her experience as a doula & midwife: fulfilling, exhausting, privileged, humbling, peaceful.

Ruth said about her experience as a doula & midwife: fulfilling, exhausting, privileged, humbling, peaceful.

It was great to be able to join an educational get-together with you both when I met you on the Home Birth Gathering last year. Ive since gone through your amazing resource site and been amazed at the feeling of community and sharing of information I found there.

Im fascinated by the descriptions I have read of the transition labouring women go through from self-consciousness/awareness to the primal instinctivness and responsiveness of the body (generally described in the cases of natural birthers). You must bare witness to this often.

I’ve noticed how often the issues of tearing and or stretching come up for women as a “problematic issue” post-birth. In a society that is quite effected by media influences about gender identity and sexuality, how have you found your experience on the issue of vaginal tearing and the issues with aesthetics associated around this for women?

Lana: The large majority of the women I work with come to realize that the body and the pelvic floor specifically is designed to withstand and recover from the experience of birth. My focus would be more to teach women to make the connection with their vagina’s and learn to trust that if they are healthy, choose to birth instinctively (specifically not being coached to push!) …then their perineums will weather the passing of  a baby either in tact or with minimal to moderate damage and to remember that vagina’s are fantastic and healing themselves afterwards!

A still from the birthing room at the Mtwana clinic in Muizenberg

A still from the birthing room at the Mtwana clinic in Muizenberg

I was sent this link to an interesting article about French photographer Christian Berthelot who documented a series of images of brand new babies, moments after their (cesarian) birth into the world.

From the article I found this piece quite interesting:

“When I saw [my son] for the first time, he was bloodied and covered in this white substance called vernix,” Berthelot recalled of his first experience with a caesarean. “He was like a warrior who has just won his first battle, like an angel out of darkness. What a joy to hear him scream”.
The babies captured through Berthelot’s lens reveal various ways to enter the world. Some scream and cry, some gesticulate wildly, while others appear still and calm, and a few, in the words of the artist, “do not yet appear to belong to the world of the living.”

Leanne - born April 8, 2014 at 8:31 am
1kg 745 - 13 seconds of life. Photograph by Christian Berthalot

Leanne – born April 8, 2014 at 8:31 am
1kg 745 – 13 seconds of life. Photograph by Christian Berthalot

His images are raw, beautiful and dramatic and are so very different to the pristine, rosey-cheeked newborn images one more often sees. Berthelots images, however, represent the messy miracle of birth in the way that only midwives and obstetricians really get to see; those first living moments of a human being. What do you think about the images or about your perception of birth as apposed to societies adjusted one?

Liza - born February 26, 2013 at 8:45 am 
3kg 200 - 3 seconds of life. Photograph by Christian Berthelot

Liza – born February 26, 2013 at 8:45 am 
3kg 200 – 3 seconds of life. Photograph by Christian Berthelot

 Ruth: When I first saw these images I thought, “That’s it! That’s that moment! That’s what we get to see!”

There is still a part of me that wonders at whether we should be allowed to capture this very sacred and personal moment but at the same time I see how for people who do not work in this field, it is so incredible to see how fresh and raw and real these images are.

A still from the birthing room at the Mtwana clinic in Muizenberg

A still from the birthing room at the Mtwana clinic in Muizenberg

I remember the first image of a birth I ever saw, it was an incredible and very beautiful B&W, grainy image, I’ve never forgotten it.

At that stage, about 10 years ago, I had never considered these moments from a photographic perspective and am interested in the idea since I find the idea of birth to be such an intimate experience for a couple. How do you feel about having a photographer present and working on births and what are the differing feelings about this subject you’ve heard from clients?

 Ruth: We have all obviously been influence by images of birth, breast feeding and babies and what wonderful tools they are to show what we want to teach and convey.
At the same time though, and as I said previously, are we tampering with the sacredness of it all by having someone there snapping away?
Does it change anything? Does it alter the event?

Would we have someone there to photograph the intimacy of our wedding night? Giving birth is as intimate and personal as that and I completely understand wanting the moment captured but I sometimes wonder at what cost?

Dr. Michel Odent talks about observers (including cameras) at a birth inhibiting the release of oxytocin during labour (the hormone which contracts the uterus, but also the hormone of love) so basically, if a mother is aware of a camera or an observer, this may hinder the labouring process.

Just something to consider and think about.

Clients are usually very happy and grateful for the photos they have of their births. I know I am of mine. But I do remember feeling slightly distracted by having photos taken…

After our meeting Ruth sent me a link to a series of photographs of “half born humans” which we had discussed.
They show the moment that also Berthelot discussed when he explained how the brand new baby does “not yet appear to belong to the world of the living”, I’d never quite put my mind to it in this way, but that is exactly what it is, a kind of in-between moment… these incredible images are by Jaydene Freund:

From her series of "Amazing Birth photos of Half Born Humans". Photography by Jaydene Freund

From her series of “Amazing Birth photos of Half Born Humans”.
Photography by Jaydene Freund

Jaydene writes:

“I have rarely shared images of the actual moment of birth to protect my client’s privacy, however I have received permission to post these incredible images of these little super-humans when they were only half earth-side. Don’t be scared to be amazed by these images! This is human life before it has taken it’s first breath. Suspended between 2 worlds, life is waiting for that final push to be born.” 

From her series of "Amazing Birth photos of Half Born Humans". Photography by Jaydene Freund

From her series of “Amazing Birth photos of Half Born Humans”.
Photography by Jaydene Freund

If you could communicate one message to women about the birth experience, what would that be?

Ruth: Listen to yourself and what your needs are…the decisions you make around your pregnancy and birth are your first parenting decisions, so find a caregiver who really gets you and what you want.

I asked Lana & Ruth which 5 words best describe their experience as a doula or midwife. Lana: "awesome, sleep-depriving, life-affirming, addictive, soul-fulfilling! "

I asked Lana & Ruth which 5 words best describe their experience as a doula. Lana: “awesome, sleep-depriving, life-affirming, addictive, soul-fulfilling! “

Lana: Women are not doing nearly enough research into pregnancy & birth in this day and age! There’s far too much focus on obtaining the latest gadgets that will “make parenting easier”….Nonsense! Parenting is the hardest thing you’ll ever do – otherwise you’re doing it wrong!…

Rather focus on what type of pregnancy and birth you would like and explore ALL the options …..you only get to have your 1st birth experience once!

Make sure its a good one!

A still from the birthing room at the Mtwana clinic in Muizenberg

A still from the birthing room at the Mtwana clinic in Muizenberg

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Pregnancy & birth: This is Lynette


Photographing a mother and tiny brand new baby is and always will be very special and memorable. Within the first day of their lives together one already sees magic happening: Motherhood.

I photographed these portraits of Lynette and baby Liam at the Cape Medi Clinic were he was born in September. Every tiny detail is in place and perfect and the parents are in a strange state of awe, shock, emotion, joy and pride (or it at least this is my interpretation of these moments!).

I had photographed a series of nude pregnancy images of Lynette just a short time before and was aiming to create a kind of parallel version depending on what scenario I found when I arrived, or, how possible it would be to shoot her and the new babe from above.

These are the beautiful and very foetal images I documented in studio while she was still pregnant…



I love the image which incorporated the environment around the bed (above). It emphasises the foetal quality of the image and also creates a relationship between subject and documentor.


The images are so soft and she looks like the epitomy of a pregnant women.

When I arrived in the hospital and walked into their room Lynette was standing square in the centre of the room and looked like a subject from a Rineke Dijkstra portrait (images of women immediately after they had given birth, standing up against a clinical hospital environment and holding their babies).

On the left is one of Rineke Dijksra's portraits of a new mother and on the left is exactly how I found lunette when I walked into her hospital room. It was like déjavu.

On the left is one of Rineke Dijksra’s portraits of a new mother and on the left is exactly how I found Lynette when I walked into her hospital room. It was like déjavu.

I photographed a series of portraits but this one I also really like for its imitation and parallel to the studio portraits I shot of her.



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