For birth photographer Sarah Widnyana, a devastating pregnancy loss at 20 weeks gestation sparked not only tremendous heartache, but also a deeper and more intense understanding of the power of a photograph. “The hospital at which we delivered our son took photos of him after he had passed and I treasure these deeply. They are one of the only memories I will ever have of him and they are locked safely in a box next to my bed. The significance of these photos to me is immeasurable and I started to recognise birth as a rite of passage.”
Sarah turned tragedy into a triumphant career change and was awarded the 2018 AIPP NSW Documentary Professional Photographer of the Year title for her efforts. We delved a little deeper into her world of birth-photography and how it all works (down to the nitty-gritty of unexpected c-sections to when the photographer actually turns up), to how she combines business with her two daughters and why birth is a moment in time that deserves to be captured.
Can you tell us a bit about your journey to birth photography and how you started your business, Life and Lens?
I have always had a love for photography, I remember getting my first point and shoot camera when I was in high school. I would forever be taking photos of our family pets and actually fell in love with macro photography – so for me, that was photographs of small insects and the close-up parts of flowers and pieces of fruit, it fascinated me. When I was 21 I started my business and shot mainly family portraits and studio style newborn photos. I was terrible. I loved taking photographs but I didn’t love what I was shooting. I was trying so hard to get into the market that I ended up underselling and overworking myself. I was working full time in a government job, spending all of my night’s editing and then all of my weekends photographing – I burnt out quickly and put down my camera for a good 8 years. Then in 2013, I had our first baby, Wren, and my love for photography was reignited. As any new parent does when their baby is born, my phone was fast filling up with candid shots of my baby and I started using my DSLR more and more. However, it wasn’t until we lost our second child at 20 weeks gestation in 2016 that I really got an appreciation for the power of a photograph. The hospital at which we delivered our son took photos of him after he had passed and I treasure these deeply. They are one of the only memories I will ever have of him and they are locked safely in a box next to my bed. The significance of these photos to me is immeasurable and I started to recognise birth as a rite of passage. I felt changed after his birth and knew that with our next I wanted to plan a home birth and keep the entire journey as close to my heart as possible. Documenting the journey with our third birth just felt second nature after all I had been through I didn’t want to have any regrets the third time around, including photographing the birth.
Did you have your own births photographed?
Not professionally no, and this will forever be one of my biggest regrets. I was disconnected from my first pregnancy and birth as it was an unplanned pregnancy and took me a while to reconcile in my mind. At the time, I scarcely wanted myself photographed pregnant let alone in labour, I also didn’t know that birth photography existed at this point in my life! With my second birth, the loss of our boy at 20 weeks, it wasn’t a consideration. That was a soul-destroying journey for me and my family and whilst I would not have been opposed to having it photographed, it was a whirlwind few weeks so we never had the opportunity. With our third birth, the birth of my second daughter Clover, we didn’t hire a birth photographer as such, I set my camera up so that my husband and midwife could use it for me during labour. My husband has an interest in photography as well and doesn’t take a bad photo either but they don’t compare to what I would have received if we had hired a professional. I feel as though, you have to appreciate birth for the beautiful journey that it is before you may consider having it photographed. The instance of first time Mum’s wanting their births photographed is not as great as it is for Mother’s in their subsequent labours and I think that is because these women have been through it before. They can appreciate birth for its beauty and recognise that it is a moment in time that deserves capturing, no less than a wedding does.
What’s the process like when you have a booking - do you get a call when someone is in labour? How long do you wait until you get to the scene and start snapping?
I like to get to know my birth clients as though they are family prior to their big day, I want them to be so comfortable with my presence so that they barely notice I am there on the day. If birthing at home I will visit their home to assess the lighting and get to know what sort of birth space they are trying to create. Letting birthing women fully envelop themselves in their desired birth space is so crucial to achieving a positive birth outcome, the more I know about how they want to birth, the better placed I am to getting good images and not taking away from their peaceful environment. I go on call for my Mumma’s from 38 weeks to 42 weeks gestation. During this period I don’t venture any more than an hour away from my home and I don’t drink or book any other long jobs in during this time. I meet my birthing family either at their home or place of birth when they are approximately 7cm dilated (around when they are deemed to be in active labour) and start snapping from the moment I arrive. I try to capture the smaller details of the environment and room first to set the scene for their birth gallery and then I stay for the entire labour and for the immediate post-partum period to capture skin to skin with Mum and bub, first breastfeed, siblings, meeting their new brother/sister, baby’s first cuddle with Dad etc. The images a family receive after their birth can vary greatly from intimate and detailed shots of the physiological aspects of birth such as the baby crowning and the placenta after birth to more modest images capturing Dad’s reaction when the baby is born, Mum’s expressions during labour and more of the actual birthing environment. Every client of mine is looking to achieve something different with their imagery. For a lot of women, their birth photographs provide a great source of comfort and healing, especially if they have had traumatic birth experiences in the past. These images can give closure to these wounds.
Are there usually arrangements in place if the birth takes an unexpected twist, e.g. an emergency c-section?
Understandably, no photographers are allowed to document emergency c- sections if the procedure is a lifesaving operation. If a woman has been labouring for many hours and is simply exhausted or the baby’s heart rate is starting to show signs of distress but is not in dire danger, some hospitals will allow the c-section to be documented however, it is greatly dependant on the staff you have on the day. Some obstetricians and anaesthetists are supportive of photographers in the operating room, however, the sad reality is that most are not. The family’s support can also have a great impact on whether their birth photographer is allowed to document their c-section; if the family is strong in their decision to have their photographer there as part of their ‘birth team’ the odds are definitely more in the photographer’s favour to being allowed in. These days, many birth photographers also practice as doulas so their case for being allowed into the theatre is stronger than the next. In the case of me not being able to document a birth due to an unexpected turn such as a c-section, I will flick my camera on to ‘auto’ mode and hand it to a midwife or Dad and pray for the best in a theatre! I had a medical student take my camera into a c-section once and she came out with the most amazing images! Afterwards, I will always stay to still be present to document the immediate post-partum period. Completing the entire narrative of the story I am documenting is of the utmost importance to me. I know how important these images are to some families and I will always try to present a complete story to them in my galleries.
Births in every shape and form are memorable, why do you think people now want the entire process documented?
Society is slowly moving away from the idea that birth should be kept behind closed doors and is solely women’s business. Fathers are more present at births, women are more open to speaking about their birth experiences and birth itself is considered less of a taboo subject. This all goes hand in hand with women taking ownership of their bodies, their lives and their experiences. Birth is still a mystery to most. Most people don’t learn about the process of birth until they are pregnant or have a close family member/friend who is going through it themselves. We aren’t taught about it in schools, aside from the basics… That is slowly being changed as women recognise it for the rite of passage that it is. In other cultures birthing women are celebrated and taken care of like Queens; these cultures put birth on a pedestal as a monumental life-changing moment – and it is! Not only is it the birth of a child but also the birth of a mother and that is significant. In Australia, we celebrate women who “bounce back” from birth swiftly and get back to their “normal” lives as soon as possible but in other cultures, these women are nurtured and pampered for a minimum of 40 days after they’ve given birth. It is a huge thing for your body to go through and now women are beginning to realise that this deserves to be celebrated, documented and remembered – and with more than just a few token images taken on your iPhone…
How do you juggle your unpredictable hours being on-call as a photographer with your two children?
I am lucky enough to live in a community where my friends and family are immensely supportive of my job and they are always around to help out. My husband works full time but if I am called out overnight he, of course, takes over, I think it’s lovely to give fathers that time to be “Mum” and “Dad” to the kids and I know my two girls love their Daddy time. It does get difficult at times as my support network obviously have their own children and lives to manage so I also have a babysitter whom I can call when I need to at last minutes notice. My eldest daughter Wren is in day-care 3 days a week and next year she will be starting school so things will get significantly easier then. My youngest daughter Clover is 11 months old and at the moment and she comes along with me to most of my daytime shoots; I babywear her and she sleeps the majority of the time! I haven’t yet had to take her to a birth but I would not be opposed to it if I needed to. Being on-call for almost the entire year does have its drawbacks and I need to be well prepared to ensure that one birth doesn’t throw me off for an entire fortnight. The first birth I shot caught me completely off guard and threw me for 6 – I was not prepared for how exhausted I would feel afterwards and not just physically exhausted, being involved in such an intimate moment in a women’s life demands a lot from you, emotionally as well as physically. I felt elated, drained, grateful and sad all at once. I was completely out of my routine of healthy eating and exercise and had to work hard to bring myself back up to speed and back on the bandwagon. Nowadays I am more prepared, I take snacks with me to births and force my body back into a normal sleep routine as soon as I am back home. It is all part of the learning curve after spending most of my life working 9-5.
You were awarded the 2018 AIPP NSW Documentary Professional Photographer of the Year title - what does an accolade like this mean for you?
Reading those words now and knowing that they are about me is still so surreal. I entered the AIPP NSW Awards on a whim after a conversation with my mentor one day, I decided that I had nothing to lose and I went into it with zero expectations. I think that is why I am so blown away by the results, I wasn’t expecting to come away with such an award so it was jaw-dropping to see my name on the AIPP website when the results were posted. For me, winning this title is vindication that I am on the right path in life. It is verification that this is what I need to be doing and I am so glad I finally made the jump and leap of faith to give it my all and pursue this as my career. My photography had taken the bench and sat in the shadows of my life for so long, my husband’s career took precedent as I was building our family and raising our children so to be rewarded with such an accolade mere months after I decided to pick my business back up again, is the confidence boost I needed. I also hope it helps propel birth photography into the limelight and gives credit to all birth photographers out there, I am definitely not the first birth photographer to win a state documentary title but every little bit of exposure for our art is great and I am happy to have contributed to that in some way.
What’s the best thing about motherhood?
What a question! For me, motherhood is a constant learning curve. From the way, I present and hold myself down to how I shape my children to do the same. I love how every day presents a new learning opportunity for me and there is something really beautiful about being taught life lessons by your own children. Seeing the lessons my mother taught me as a child, come out in me as a mother is surprising but heart-warming. All these years I thought no words my mother taught me had sunk in, but they lay dormant until you have children of your own and you realise that you did actually listen and take your parent’s advice growing up and that you want to instil the same values and morals in your own children. It’s a beautiful look at your past and a glimpse into your future all at once. Seeing the joy my children bring my mother is another big one for me, I love them and see them every day obviously but when I see how my mother looks at them it stops me in my tracks. I can’t wait (well yes I can, I don’t want to be a grandmother too soon!) to see that and feel those feelings for myself. To see my own two girls with children of their own. Motherhood is tough, there’s no mistaking that, but it always gives you something to always look forward to.
How do you handle the stressful parts of motherhood?
I lean on my support network for help when I need it; I’ve never been one that’s been afraid to ask for help in my normal day to day life but this changed when I became a mother and I don’t think I’m alone here. I feel, as mothers, we are often too hard on ourselves and society can be too; it is important to be comfortable to ask for help when you need it. Taking time out when I feel like I am losing my cool is another strategy I try to remember to do when I feel like I am nearing the edge of my patience with my girls. Allowing myself time to take things slowly has been a huge obstacle for me in motherhood, I like to plan things and get things done immediately and obviously this isn’t always possible with children to take care of. I sometimes need to remind myself that it’s okay if certain things don’t get done and to just take each day moment by moment, it’s important to remember not to be too hard on yourself. You’ve just got to do whatever you need to, to get through the day and also remember that things do get easier, nothing ever stays stressful forever. Mothers are masters at adapting and overcoming, some just need a little reminding.
What’s your definition of self-care and how do you make time for it?
My idea of self-care is making sure I prioritise making time for the things that make me calm and relaxed. I have always been a fitness fanatic so prioritising time to work-out is paramount for me. I find that when I don’t have that time, both my mental and physical well-being suffer. When I was pregnant with my first child, Wren, my husband and I purchased equipment we could both use at home to take the pressure off having to make it to the gym each day. Having my ‘gym’ in our garage makes it so much easier for me to make time for it and also motivates me as I physically walk past it every day, multiple times a day! Sure there are days where I let it slide and forget/don’t have time to get a work-out in but I definitely notice a difference to my mental state on those days. I find my mind is clearer and I am more productive if I am eating well and working out each day. I also think it sets a really good example for our girls too; nothing to do with body image but more to do with taking care of yourself – if you find that your “me” time is finger painting on your own in the backyard then hell prioritise time for that! I try to ensure I get out of the house for a walk in the fresh air each day too; this helps with burning some of the girls’ energy off too so it’s a win/win situation! Since working full time on my business it is definitely harder to make time for these “me thing” each day, I have to schedule all of my workload and “me” time around naps and find myself working late at night to make up for it, but I try to take things one day at a time and if I’ve not managed to fit everything in one day, I try better for the next day.