Text: Ligia Popławska
When the pandemic hit, pregnant women were gripped by fear of hospital restrictions and the prospect of giving birth alone. Midwives’ phones rang endlessly from terrified women hoping to deliver safely in their own homes. Los Angeles-based photographer, Maggie Shannon, began following midwives and pregnant women from check-ups in makeshift tents outside birthing centers to births in apartments and birthing pools. Her photographs offer a rare glimpse into this intimate and often taboo subject of childbirth. They capture the mutual trust and care between midwives and mothers, especially in a time of mass uncertainty and isolation. We had the pleasure of asking Maggie a few questions about the details of working on this project.
What motivated and inspired you to start the Extreme Pain, but Also Extreme Joy series?
I wanted to tell the story of the pandemic from the women’s health perspective, which is extremely important to me. I was talking with a friend who works as a doula and she mentioned that hospitals weren’t allowing partners or family into the delivery room, forcing mothers to give birth alone. We both wondered if there could be a potential rise in home births because of this so I started to reach out to midwives to see if it was true.
Can you tell me about your process and how you approached the midwives?
I reached out to midwives across the United States to ask them about how they were handling the pandemic and if they had seen a rise in clients. The answer was a resounding yes! The midwives were overwhelmed in an already stressful situation.
In this photo series we see scenes from one of the most intimate and rarely seen moments – the labour and birth of a baby. How did you build the trust of both midwives and mothers-to-be to allow you to be so close, especially during this difficult time of isolation caused by the Covid-19 crisis?
I think that trust was built up over time. I had phone conversations with the midwives before working with them and lots of emails were exchanged. They introduced me to clients that were open to having me come and photograph their birth as a part of this story. When a mother agreed, I tried to talk to them or meet up in person before hand to explain the project and why I was doing it. Their trust in me was so incredible, it’s something I treasure.
You photographed women both in private homes and in birthing centres, where the level of intimacy and distance varied. How did you deal with this duality and how do you think the pandemic affected both pregnant women and midwives?
The pandemic affected both women and the midwives in a huge way, some positive and negative. For the women, it caused extreme stress and prevented some family from traveling to be with them. One midwife told me she had seen a rise in breached babies because of the stress. The midwives had incredible pressure on them as well, not only to shift their practice to continue caring for their clients but to also keep their own families safe.
What did you find most fascinating and challenging while working on these series?
Each birth I witnessed was so incredible, seeing a baby enter this world is something that is hard to put into words. Also seeing the strength of the women giving birth as well! It’s hard and exhausting work, and women are so strong. As for a challenge, keeping myself and my husband safe was a top priority for me. Before we knew that Covid is mostly transmitted through air, I had a whole routine after photographing, wiping down gear, washing clothes and taking a shower. It was terrifying to think I could bring it home with me.
Home birth is still taboo, at least in most European countries. Your project opens up this topic to a wider audience and is a great example of starting a conversation about it. What do you think needs to change about this issue and will you continue the project after the pandemic?
Thank you for that! I’m so glad that this project is resonating with people. I’m continuing to learn how much we as women aren’t told about our body and how much knowledge was ripped away from us over the decades. It makes me furious to hear stories from mothers that weren’t treated with respect or forced into something they didn’t want during their births because of convenience or money. Many of the midwives I spoke with became midwives because they had such a negative experience with the birth of their own child.
I am continuing to work on this project. As we’re sadly learning, the pandemic is not over yet. I’m hoping to expand it to include other areas across the United States and celebrate these women who are doing incredible work under such pressure and tough circumstances.
How has this project affected you personally and which moment from it is most precious to you?
The moment that really hit me was the first birth I photographed, a little boy at a birth center in Arcadia, California. Seeing his little eyes open for the first time will be with me for the rest of my life.