Women I've Shot

Birth: This is Shelley’s Story
The Birth of Kingston, 31 October 2018

Shelley lies calmly and quietly on the hospital bed, her hands holding a tiny white baby’s cap and a teeny nappy. She’s wheeled into the operating room and I change into blue scrubs. There are warm smiles all around. This is a scheduled C-section.

Shelley leans over, her back exposed, to get the epidural into her spine. It always makes me nervous to watch that long, thick needle entering such a vulnerable spot.

Shelley lies back and the doctors start to prepare her stomach. They are cleaning and laying down plastic sheeting over her legs and building up a curtain between Shelley’s round belly and her head, hiding the technicalities and gore of surgery. We wait a bit longer for the epidural to take full effect.

The C-section commences. Its magical that a baby is about to appear! A fine line followed by a tiny trail of blood has the first incision is made low down between the roundness of her tummy and her pubic area. The doctors are incredible, so calm, so warm, still smiling. More incisions are made, deeper and I get dizzy for a few moments. Then a gush of pink, fine liquid as they break her waters and open her womb. I see little Kingston’s head, its full of the thickest hair I’ve ever seen on a newborn, so, so very sweet.

His little head peaks out and the doctors hold back for a moment as he pushes himself out a bit, then they guide his head and his wet and vernix covered shoulders out. His hands pop out into the cool air of the operating theatre. The doctors grasp under his armpits and gently pull him out, his little legs kick into a new open space for the first time. A cry escapes as he inhales his first breath and releases it.

The doctors gloved hands clasp him gently to her body and she carefully grips him around his chest and holds him up above the dividing curtain to show Shelley her son for the first time. He opens his eyes, just the smallest squint into this new world, and reaches out and grabs his Moms pinky finger! The sweetest thing! Richard, Shelley’s husband is strong and watching mesmerized and holding his phone up to video the whole process as he meets his son for the first time too.

Kingston is carried to the warmed receiving bed on the left where a pediatrician runs his hand over his little head, over his fontanelle. The umbilical cord is clamped, and round nosed scissors are handed to Richard. He’s transfixed still with his phone watching. He takes the scissors and cuts the cord. Its emotional. Measurements are taken, hospital bracelets are attached. His little back and shoulders are covered in the finest and cutest lanugo I’ve ever seen.

Little Kingston is weighed. 3985 grams. A little frown on his face, his wet dark hair. He’s wrapped in a towel, his nappy and cap are put on by a lovely nurseand he’s on Shelley’s chest, very close to her face. She’s got the biggest smile on her face as she takes his little hand into hers. His tiny fingers are all wrinkled and pink!

Kingston rolls his head around to his mom’s face and places his mouth over hers. A kiss!

The surgery is complete, and Shelley is moved off the operating table and onto a bed and wheeled out of the room.

The towel is removed, and Shelley and Kingston are skin-to-skin. A nurse comes and helps her as Kingston wiggles around her breast looking for her nipple. There are many hands: the nurse, Shelley and the obstetrician all guide his head gently and he latches. The first feed.

Shelley gentle strokes his face while with her other fingers she pushes his nose away from her breast, so he has space to breath. More photos. The new family! The exploration of his little bod for the first time, his hair! They will need a brush Shelley says.

The bed is wheeled back into the ward where the families are eagerly and excitedly waiting for news.

I take a few sweet portraits of Kingston, his hair still wet, before I make a quiet exit and leave Shelley’s family coo-ing and emotional with their first grandchild.

Women I've Shot

Birth: This is Romy’s Story
The Birth of Shyla & Tatum, 9 December 2015

The highway was quiet and dark on my way to the hospital. The robots on my way changed colour fluidly, I was grateful.

This was going to be an emergency C-section, a true emergency to save the two babies lives. I parked at Kingsbury hospital and within moments I slipped into the operating theatre in a set of blue scrubs.

Romy’s back was exposed, a long needle going into it – it always makes me cringe. Romy’s husband, my cousin Cal, holding her in the safety of his arms. The two were intertwined in such a gentle embrace and I didn’t want to disturb it. It’s a crazy space, so many doctors and nurses, the amount of equipment, the colours. One knows that very soon many things will be changing, a baby, in this case twins, will be arriving in moments.

Romy lies down with Cal at her side and I watch as the doctors prepare her. She looks so strong and so courageous and when I think back on it, she must have been terrified. This was going to be an emergency C-section, the first I would witness.

I watch as that first line of blood meets the blade at the point of the incision and then a gush of fine fluid as her waters are broken. It’s quite surreal- the fact that such major surgery takes place while the patient lies awake, I never get used to it.

The light is hard and harsh on the camera.

Romy is quiet holding Cals hand, its strange to think that she can’t see what is happening to her own body so close by. I watched and felt like a guardian. Romy and Cals eyes were locked.

The doctors gently pulled out the first tiny baby girl. I stood so near as she emerged from Romy’s stomach. She was perfect and so, so small and was carried into the warm light of the heated receiving table on the right. It was a weird feeling to know that there would soon be another baby emerging…

There was quite a bit of conversation. Many hands moved swiftly as they guided out the second baby, feet first. This baby is a totally different colour, dark and red whereas the first had been pale and creamy. Baby two is also smaller and she’s immediately carried to her sisters’ side. The doctors intensely and carefully watch over them both and communicate back and forth in low tones. It’s extremely tense.

It’s hard to believe what I’m seeing and yet at the same time I’m working and documenting. I can’t explain the strangeness of the experience: Romy on the bed, meters away, Cal in awe, standing with the babies, tears in his eyes, speechless, two tiny crying baby girls. The operating room feels heavy.

They wheel the babes almost immediately away to the NICU. It all happened so fast, I’m a bit taken aback by the abruptness, Romy hasn’t even laid eyes on her girls, in fact nothing has been said to her at all! She’s asking but getting no response as each of the doctors is managing the medical situation at hand. I walk around to the bed to show Romy an image on the back of the camera, I feel nervous about what to show her, these two tiny babes look so fragile. I watch as the reflection of the LCD screen of my camera, held above her face, dances in her irises as they move between the two little figures, she’s seeing for the first time in this small image. I can see she’s trying to absorb it, to grasp the intensity of every last second that’s just passed. It’s a huge triumph, a miracle and a trauma.

She looks so incredibly beautiful in this moment. I can’t believe the courage she must have had to hold herself together. She’s like a lioness, a mother bear and these are her precious treasures.

The doctors take a long time, it feels, to sew her up. Romy wants to know about the girls but not much is communicated except that they are in NICU. Cal is by her side holding her hand, his other hand protectively around her head, stroking her hair. I watch the procedure intermittently. I don’t feel phased by the practicalities or technicalities of it but am rather aware that Romy has still not seen her babies. It must have been the hardest thing.

When the doctors are finally finished the nurse’s wheel her out and then do some checks and blood pressure monitoring. Romy looks pale and she’s shaking. It’s the drugs, the shock and the experience.

Romy’s parents are desperate to reach out to her over the red line on the ward floor between the theatre space and the outside area, it’s just a few meters away and they wait impatiently to embrace her. Eventually she is wheeled to a room and her parents hold her, reassure her, congratulate them both, hug her. They are overwhelmed too. Romy’s sisters are already on the plane. Our family WhatsApp groups are humming with congratulations and wishes.

Finally, a doctor comes in. Romy has been desperate to have news of her babies, almost an hour has passed by now. It’s hard to hear what the doctor is saying, I watch the focus on Romy’s face. When the doctor leaves she melts into sobs and is enveloped by her family, it’s so hard.

She has been so strong up until that point, so brave and courageous, now her emotions come flying out in a release. All she can do now is hope and wait the doctor tells her.

Her babies are so separated from her and it’s all so out of her control. The babies are not out of the woods yet and all everyone can do is hope and wait to see what news will come from NICU. The doctors are doing their very best to look after those two tiny little souls.

I watched Romy in all these moments and admired the woman that she is. My mind is blown. I leave the space quietly and head out of the hospital in a daze. I consider the incredibility of the miracle I have just had the honour of witness. The first moments of these two beauties into this world. The love and courage, the strength and caring of all those that surrounded her and I know this is all really quite something. Romy is quite something. Then I’m back on that quiet dark highway with just the memories of what I’ve just seen.

(The babies stayed in NICU for about 6 weeks and both underwent a surgery, both are happy and bouncy 5 year old’s now).

Women I've Shot

Birth: This is Talitha’s Story
The Birth of Noah, 21 January 2019

I got the call from Talitha at about 1:30am. I grabbed my gear and drove the hour to her house through the quiet dark highways.

The house was so quiet and dimly lit. I put down my things and slowly went upstairs to the loft bedroom where Peter, Talitha and their midwife Ayla were.

I quietly greeted and sat for a while to acclimatise and feel the space out. I tiptoed down stairs a little while later and brought up my tripod and camera and a spare memory card and battery and started, very occasionally, to take a few pictures to capture the scene.

Talitha was at quite an advanced stage of labour when I arrived and within an hour things had become increasingly intense for her. She moved around very little until at one point she kneeled, on a yoga mat, at the end of their plastic and sheet covered bed and she began to moan and push through active labour. Her husband Peter quietly but firmly held her in her space and Ayla stood back behind her, her hands in blue gloves, waiting calmly.

She began to push, she was surprisingly quiet, I almost didn’t realise it was that time. I moved around as fast and quietly as I could to the other side of the bed. A better vantage point. I caught the moment as all three caught Noah as he made his way out of the womb and into the world. Peter and Talitha gently pulled him up into their arms. A warm aura clung to them in those moments. The look on Talitha’s face was peaceful yet intense. I wondered how her body must feel after having a baby leave her moments ago.

They slowly got up, Talitha holding Noah and Peter holding Talitha and they made their way onto the bed where, relieved and thrilled, they stared at their baby and kissed each other.

Those moments were sublime but also became increasingly difficult as we all waited for the birth of her placenta which usually comes out within 30minutes of the birth of the baby. Eventually Ayla clamped the umbilical cord and handed Peter the scissors.

They touched his toes and his tummy and his face and between smiles Talitha cramped and cringed in pain with the contractions of the placenta, which, after more than 35min, had not yet come out. Ayla spoke about ambulances…she put a drip into Talitha’s arm and I took the baby so that Peter could stand on the bed with the drip held up and Talitha could focus on pushing. It was agonising to watch and at the same time a precious moment to hold in my arms such a brand new little human.

Thankfully her placenta eventually made its way out after injections and drips and pushing. I handed Noah back to his parents and peace slowly settled into the room. It was about 3:30am now and I made my way downstairs where I rested and waited for dawn, for the house to wake up.

Little Summer, their daughter, woke up, her hair sweetly dishevelled. Talitha’s mother and Summer made their way upstairs behind me. I wanted to capture this special meeting for them.

Early morning light flooded the loft and Summer tentatively met her little brother for the first time.

After capturing a few moments I said my goodbyes, packed away my gear and quietly left into a beautiful, fresh early morning.

Interviews & Conversations Projects

A Conversation with Independent Midwife Natasha Stadler


Natasha Stadler is a midwife based in Somerset West, 30 minutes out of Cape Town, we met at the Midwifery & Birth Conference hosted by Home Birth SA in 2015, when I photographed her portrait amongst many other South African midwives and doulas that were present. 

We chatted at the event and, a while later, in March 2016, I visited her home-based birthing and meeting space which is in a private cottage apartment in her peaceful  neighborhood. Natasha has been in her profession since 1990 and we spent quite some time chatting about her experiences with women.

Birth: a perfect process

Natasha spoke about the somewhat magical element of protection she observes taking place in the labouring mothers body and that of the birthing baby. Many of her observations and remarks where new to me and totally intriguing. For example, Natasha observed how, often, babies that were not receiving what they needed in utero often arrived earlier than expected. She saw similarly aligned elements occurred when for instance, a knot was found in the umbilical cord, the labour had been far quicker and the contractions shorter, perhaps as an automatic protection of the life of the baby she suggested. 

Details from Natasha’s home birth space in Somerset West. The picture on the left is a capture from the Vietnam war,- a soldier assists a local giving birth.

We discussed how, very often, labor begins in a safe place, at night, when we would naturally be in a sheltered environment. When potential problems occur or labour is not progressing as it should, it is often natures indication that something is wrong. It gives time for the body to respond as best it can. 

Another intriguing observation,- Women seldom go into labour when they are ill or stressed. Generally when the process of labour is quietly observed and a pregnancy has been closely monitored, elements have the opportunity to fall into place, to align. 

I imagine midwives as the guardians and story-keepers of natural birth, the ones who allow the process to unfold, a womans wisdom to stay intact and she and her babe to be supported. 

Their personalized approach to midwifery, and astute observations, create space for birthing mothers to labour in their own way. It struck me how straight forward birth could be when not interfered with, a safe environment is created and when fear is eliminated from the process..

The power in sharing information and the changes happening in the birth arena:

Women are the source of life, the choices we make directly influence the generations to come”  

Interestingly, there has been much pro-natural birth talk in the last decade and thus, it seems, media has picked it up and past it on as well. Natasha has noticed a steady increase in requests for natural births in the last 4 years. I believe the sharing of stories, a very feminine characteristic, is responsible for carrying this information between women.

Details from Natasha’s home birth space in Somerset West.

Fact sharing and communication are shining light on topics women have not properly informed themselves about in the more recent past (so many alarming reasons for this). I like to think that the changes seen during birth and in early motherhood (such as immediate umbilical cord clamping and the value of breastmilk and breastfeeding) have started to shift. This is as a result of an increase in research and information available online.

50% of Natasha’s clients wanted home births in the past, now an incredible 95% of her mothers-to-be request this from the outset… 

Details from Natasha’s home birth space in Somerset West.

The empowering process of letting go- observations from a midwife:

“Never are life and death so close together than (as) during birth. The mother has two lives and the possibility of two deaths (her own and that of her child) at stake”, Natasha pointed out during our conversation, which I found humbling.

Natasha spoke about how labour and birth can open up portals to any trauma a woman may have experienced up to that point in her life. It’s a well known fact that many women revisit past abuse or traumatic experiences during birth, coming face to face with their subconscious in these moments. It’s at these junctions that one leaves much of one’s past behind and steps into the new and compromising role as Mother.

We spoke about the healing birth has brought to many of the women in her care. In Natasha’s words,

“Because birth is a process of letting go and trusting, (yourself, your body, any higher powers you may believe in) it grossly effects a women’s experience of being, after the process of labour and birthing her baby”.

Being informed, prepared and incorporating the wisdom of a midwife or doula to investigate and prepare for the process makes sense and I hope that many women in future will seek this out. Thanks for your wisdom Natasha.