“The thing about natural birth is that every birth ends up being unique. So even though I am prepared and have shot so many, the next one will have its own set of challenges and surprises,” remarks Kochi based birth photographer, Rachel Koshy. She has been capturing stunning scenes of birthing mothers and their support at the Birthvillage Natural Birthing Centre in the city since 2017.
Rachel had an artistic flair growing up, but the calling to take photography seriously came much later. “My father used to own a lovely set of cameras which he would use to record us growing up,” she recalls from her childhood spent in Kuwait. These cameras were at her disposal to learn from and become familiar with. “Back then, there were film cameras. I remember using them from the time I could hold a camera properly; hold it steady and shoot straight images, without shaking. I guess it all started from there,” she reminisces.
She went on to pursue her graduation and post-graduation in Advertising and PR. It was not until she gave birth to her son at Birthvillage that she realised the potential birth photography had. “I didn’t have anybody record my birth. I do have a couple of blurry images, but I wished I had more,” Rachel says. As soon as the birth was over, she asked her midwife why they could not have a photographer to record these moments.
Her midwife enquired if Rachel was interested in taking on the role of the photographer. “I was thrilled by the proposal. That was the beginning of everything,” she says cheerfully.
The power of an Image
Her profession does manage to raise a few eyebrows from time to time. “I have come across people who are horrified to know that I actually shoot births. Some people are polite enough to show their shock, and suggest why I don’t just shoot sunsets or birds, or people…why birth?” she says amusingly.
“People don’t understand what it is. They cringe when they hear I photograph births,” Rachel mentions with a giggle. “They are doubtful until I switch on my phone and show them the permitted images that I save on my phone. Then there is a shift in the mood. I love to see that,” she states.
The shock and surprise that Rachel comes across are quite predictable. “We still live in a patriarchal society, which dictates how women and their bodies should be represented,” she observes. Rachel believes birth photography cannot break these taboos as they have been here long and are here to stay. But what it can do is empower women.
“The intention is to reinforce the fact that the birthing body is a force to reckon with. Most women don’t realise this power. They have been conditioned to believe that it is not an achievement worthy of any mention. It is also seen as a painful burden and a passage of life,” says Rachel as she laments the prevailing outlook towards birth and women.
After a woman gives birth, the focus shifts from respecting the ability to create new human life to pursuing vanity. “The weight gain after the birth of a baby leads to the struggle with body image for young mothers today. Social media plays a huge role in causing insecurities and setting unrealistic standards,” Rachel points out, describing some of the issues that every mother faces postpartum.
“Through birth images, you are trying to highlight how amazingly raw and fantastic a birthing mother is. She held this baby inside for 9 to 10 months and then pushed it out, which is not an easy task,” she reflects. Rachel would love to see women brag about their birthing experience proudly through their birth photographs.
The Birthvillage Experience
Working at a natural birthing centre like Birthvillage gives Rachel access to a system that does not function in the same way that a typical maternity hospital may. “This place where I work supports and stands for natural birthing; here they don’t restrict the mother from moving around while in labour.” Rachel shares. The birth team assisting the mother is compact with a midwife, a nurse or doula and the mother’s partner present. Rachel gets the freedom to work without too many hindrances.
Like any other craft, birth photography comes with its own code of conduct and equal share of challenges. A birth photographer has access to an intimate space. The task is to capture delicate moments, without invading them. Rachel has figured out the art of working incog, making sure her clients are not aware of her presence around them.
“The human bodies, similar to most mammals, tend to relax in the cover of darkness when there is less light. Labour usually starts late in the evenings or by early morning,” she says, implying how mothers are allowed to follow their instincts and their comfort is respected. “We don’t run the lights in the room, even if it is at night. So there is zero to dim lighting, which is one of the challenges in birth photography. I ramp up the ISO, try not to shake the camera while shooting,” Rachel mentions, revealing her occupational ordeal with a laugh.
A birth photographer needs to have a lot of patience. It is not just the ability to shoot in the dimmest areas that they need to have. “I don’t know what’s going to happen till I actually shoot the birth. Every mom and every labour is different,” Rachel remarks.
The unpredictability of every labour and birth is something a birth photographer has to keep in mind. One has to learn to remain alert. “Another challenge is missing out on capturing ‘the moment’. There are no retakes here. The event is a once in a lifetime occurrence. Things can escalate from snail-paced to lightning-speed in the blink of an eye,” she states.
Trust and Respecting Boundaries
Rachel builds a rapport with her clients at Birthvillage before she is with them in the moments that change their lives. She makes sure that the expecting mothers are comfortable with her and trust her. This is a prerequisite in her profession since the mothers are at their most vulnerable phase.
“During labour and birth, there will be precious moments between the mother and the partner. There will be moments of reassurance that can be private. I make sure to capture those moments,” Rachel says. She makes sure she is somewhere in the background and not in their face when capturing such important moments. “Cameras these days are made so exquisitely, that they make zero noise, which works in my favour here. And I do not use a flash,” she explains.
It is also essential for her to make sure that she respects the personal space of the birthing mother and the partner, as much as possible. But at the same time, she has to be in tandem with what is happening with the birthing mother. “I just step out and give them their space and moments to enjoy and savour. But I know that sometimes things accelerate very fast, with different moods switching on and off. I linger to capture these events for them,” she emphasises.
Building a rapport with her clients also includes making sure that her clients can communicate with her freely. “I am privileged to be in their space. All my birthing moms are made aware of the fact that they are going to have a photographer, while they are having their baby. If at any moment they do not want it, they are always free to tell me, even if it happens while the labour is in progress,” she explains.
Rachel has a strict system in place for processing and delivering the images to her clients. She is particular about handling everything on her own, considering the nature of the images.
She manages everything from the shooting to editing and handing over of the images safely into the hands of the clients only. “Even when I have to give them for reworking, I am right there with the editor,” she declares.
She make sure to have consent from her clients for their images if she ever needs to use them. “We still are in a society where birth photography is considered a taboo. I am extremely careful when it comes to these images as if they were my personal property. Because of the nature of the images, it is a big responsibility,” she says.
Rachel uses a Nikon to shoot and has covered around 30 births in the last 5 years at Birthvillage. What she loves is being able to capture an image that she visualised. It feels surreal, she reveals.
“It’s not solely about the photography, but also witnessing these amazing mothers and seeing their strength, their birthing partners and the amazing team that supports them in their journey,” she shares further.
Talking about one incident that affected her, she narrates the birth story of one of her closest friends who decided to have her baby at Birthvillage. “The baby was big, and my friend had a hard and long labour. There were moments when I had to put down my camera and just be there for her, but then I also had to remember about shooting images for her,” she remembers.
That was a difficult birth for the mother and baby alike. “Finally when the baby came out, he took a couple of seconds longer to ‘snap earthside’. I think we all aged 10 years in those few seconds!” she recalls. It was one of those moments when Rachel felt the weight of her camera. “Even today, if I go through those images, I bawl. Those memories are so strong for me,” she confesses. The baby boy today is a ‘3-year-old dumpling’ she says describing him.
Being a birth photographer is not a typical 9 to 5 job. Her work timings depend on when the baby decides to arrive. And it is never when the mother or the birth team is ready. “It can be challenging when you have to get back home during the daytime after crazy shifts. You have to take care of your children’s school work and then cook, clean and manage the house,” says Rachel, a mother of two, revealing what her life looks like when she is not busy covering births.
“If it is a short birth, I am lucky enough to get back home within 4-6 hours. I have also been at births for over 20 hours, which can get slightly exhausting. Thankfully I have a lovely support system at home. My husband pitches in on the days I have shoots,” Rachel concludes, crediting her husband and children for their support and encouragement.
(All photos are copyright of Rachel Koshy @scibblepadcreations)