Friday, January 29, 2010

Birth Documentaries

My youngest son just turned one this past week! I could say his birth seemed like a blur and that I don't remember much but that's not true. I documented the entire process, from our check-in to the birth event to the days at home that followed our hospital stay. As a result of the documentary process and the photos created through it, I remember it very fondly and with an intimacy that most memories don't enjoy. The photos cover the first 4 days or so of Isaac's birth. My intent was to tell the story, both the good and the not-so-pleasant. The not-so-pleasant moments included contractions, the epidural, and the moments where my wife was emotionally spent. These moments are just as much a part of Isaac's birth as the first time we held him. The photos aren't gratuitous or mean-spirited but rather a way in which we can look back years down the road and know EXACTLY what happened. It's tough to argue with photos, they don't lie (unless they're manipulated, of course). Rather than talk about how to shoot a birth documentary in a technical sense, I want to talk about how I did it and how I decided to shoot what I did.

I carried a Canon 5D with a 35 f/1.4L, 85 f/1.8 and a flash with me. I kept my camera out on a table nearby and only grabbed it when I saw something noteworthy. That way, I could be there and support my wife and at the same time, think about the story I was trying to tell when I wasn't shooting. All but one shot enjoyed natural/ambient lighting in this set.

Here is the story with occasional comments on some:

I tried to stay very alert to what was happening around me, the mood in the room.
This image captures my wife's nervous and tentative mood, right after we arrived, waiting for the nurse to call us to fill out paperwork.

This is the first painful contraction I remember my wife having after we arrived. I showed the monitors in relation to her facial expression, both of which say the same thing (including the context of the hospital room helped me establish the story and setting). I later showed the photo to her in between contractions and she was surprised that it looked that painful.

You'll also notice I have several angles of my wife in the hospital room. We were there for more than 20 hours before Isaac came along and I think the number of shots conveys that. I also had a lot of down time, so I visually explored the room, tried different angles and compositions. Some of them worked and some of them didn't.

I almost didn't take this shot. My wife was nervous about the epidural and the nurse encouraged me to sit down. I decided the shot was important and took only one to record it before putting the camera down on a nearby tray table.

I also almost didn't take this one. I didn't want to focus on photography during the birth and I didn't. At the last minute, I decided I couldn't NOT take a photo and grabbed the camera which was hanging off my shoulder, shot it with one hand--while holding my wife's hand with the other--very quickly and then put it back on my shoulder.

This next series of Isaac with the nurses was a very calm period, very quiet (except for him). I quietly moved into position and snapped a few. I had time to do this, so I carefully composed each, trying to expose for the mood (the bright lamp added a little drama, which I liked).

I thought this photo told a great story. My dad, "the papparazzi", snapping away at his new grandson. I thought layering mother/son and grandfather would provide more context to what was happening, the newness of it all/a sense of the moment.

I slowed my shutter speed to take advantage of the motion of the nurse pushing Isaac through the hallways.

This shot was another which I had not planned to take. As I went out of the nursery to visit my oldest son and my parents (who were watching him), I looked back in and saw the scene, framed naturally by the window. Had to take that.

Isaac was a bit fussy those first days and wanted to be held a lot. My wife was very tired most of the time and held him quietly, enjoying the moments of rest. I didn't say anything, just quietly composed and captured the moment and I never asked her to pose for me.

Isaac was tough to get to sleep. It was a hard night. This shot is an example of taking pictures when things are not-so-pleasant. We can look back on these moments as the reality of having a newborn child and being exhausted ourselves.
For this shot and the next, it was truly dark in the room and my camera wouldn't achieve focus. Rather than use flash or turn on lights, which would disturb my wife and Isaac, I quickly manually focused, bracketing my focus to ensure I got something sharp. Sometimes, it's about getting the shot, not getting it perfectly. I happen to like this one but the point is, I told the story even if it is not perfectly sharp.

Henry (my oldest) was both excited for and jealous of his new brother. After one particular meltdown, my father-in-law calmed him, then held him as he slept. I shot tighter on them because I wanted to isolate the two of them together.
This shot contrasts well with the shot of Henry holding Isaac for the first time (a couple shots back in this set). It tells a more complete story by having them both.

Things are not always peachy and all smiles. Life isn't like that. The goal of a documentary series isn't to idealize or glamorize what happened, but to tell the reality of what happened in an honest way. There's a place for the more glamorous side of child/infant portraiture. But the family photojournalist is concerned with story telling and capturing genuine moments. Each shot should tell part of that story. I hope that this series gives you a spring board into telling your own stories, particularly with telling birth stories.

Thanks for stopping by, guys.



  1. Hey Dan, great set of photos for you and your family. I can't imagine how much they will cherish the photos when they are older. I went through the same thing in late Dec with my wife and 2/ 12 y/o son. It's amazing, exhausting and going by quickly. Congrats!

  2. Great series, thanks for sharing, my grandson was born just a year ago as well and I attended my daughter's labor and delivery as a second support person but also as chief photographer, I was able to capture both mom and dad in the whole process and created a book with a written commentary from my viewpoint. It is a real treasure for my daughter in the years to come. I also teach childbirth classes and encourage my students to do something like this as well. While many people will not be able to be as creative as you were, the moments they capture will be precious to them. Thanks for encouraging this form of documentation.

  3. what a fantastic story, thank you for sharing

  4. Absolutely outstanding post. Wonderful writing here and the photos are extremely impressive.

  5. I'm so jealous!!!!!!!! As chief photographer (and "The Mom"), I would love to have some of those shots! :) Hubby did a pretty good job, but we certainly don't have a gorgeous documentary like this. VERY lovely, your wife is a blessed woman! :)

  6. Amazing set. Love the low lit (noisey/film grain) shots as they add so much emotion to the story itself. You definitely did a great job telling a story and as you say, you did it in an "honest" way. Great Job!

  7. Amazing.....that sums it up. I am actually the nurse taking care of the new little baby Issac and I love seeing the whole story unfold. What a great job. I am SO glad I got to see this.

  8. oooh, these are awesome! excellent job!

  9. I just discovered your blog and I'm so glad I did! Yours is the type of photography I admire most - real moments of everyday life.

    I love this series documenting the birth of your son and really appreciate how you talk us through your process.

    You've got a fan here! I'll be back!

  10. These are really beautiful images, and also inspiring towards my relationships project i mentioned on another post.
    My sister in law is having a baby in March, so hopefully she will let me take some images.

    Great blog :)