This is my letter to the aspiring birth photographer about the lifestyle that holding the role of birth photographer carries with it, that you may have not considered. With love, Paulina
When diving into birth photography, a photographer quickly realizes they may need new gear because their camera doesn't support such low lighting. You may also realize the pace of the labor and birth is moving either much slower than you had planned on / hoped for, or much quicker and you missed all the photo opportunities you really wanted to get because you weren't prepared to adjust your camera to those lighting conditions that just suddenly changed.
But there is a host of other scenarios that are seldomly thought of when you are entering this world. I'd love to share some of the challenges I had to overcome when I first started documenting birth almost five years ago.
Being a birth photographer in south Florida (I work mainly at Boca Raton Regional Hospital but I can be capturing a birth anywhere from Jupiter to Miami depending on my client) is definitely the greatest challenge your career as a photographer will ever face.
Knowing you will get a call in the middle of the night definitely puts a lot of stress on a person's shoulders. How do you sleep really soundly knowing you may miss a call if you sleep too soundly? You must take measures to ensure a phone call will wake you at night.
It means you can’t stay up just a little bit later, just a little bit longer and watch your favorite show because the new episode just came out. I miss that especially much - I am a proud TV nerd ;)
You also can't have a second glass of wine to unwind. You can’t go visit that friend or family member who lives in the opposite direction of your birth client. You can't go to places where you have no cell phone signal for longer than half an hour.
Being a birth photographer, I don’t have a partner who I would be able to easily send to a client if I am out to dinner with my husband or at a concert or out of town.
Granted I have absolutely reliable and talented back up birth photographers who are on call for me in the event that I have two clients whose due dates end up overlapping because one of them went into preterm labor for example, or becomes high risk in their third trimester.
However, I would never send my back up photographer unless I am having an absolute emergency, (such as my kids being in the emergency room *knock on wood*).
There’s not very many of us birth photographers down here in south Florida.
There are even fewer birth videographers.
I can only count three.
We don’t earn a steady paycheck on a monthly basis. If we have a birth client, we get paid. If we don’t have any birth clients for a specific month of the year, we have to make the money from a previous month stretch over the course of a few months. So we try our best to work with every birth client ourselves so we do not have to pay our back ups.
So when I get a call at 3 o’clock in the morning that I am needed at a birth, I have to very quickly overcome the psychological setbacks that may affect a photographer from having the motivation to do this as a career choice.
It’s the same motivation you find within you when you are an athlete and a have to push yourself to get up out of bed at 5 o’clock in the morning and train.
There’s a part of you that so doesn’t want to and feels like it’s such a vulnerable moment for you where the id is trying to take over and make your decisions for you.
But when you are driven and passionate and when you remember that these are not just clients but members of a sisterhood, your sisterhood, your family, their story becomes your story. And that becomes your mission and your craft.
One thing that differs or differentiates birth photography from other forms of photography, is that it really isn't solely a job.
Although any kind of on-call work brings with it a larger (and worthy) investment on part of the client, you cannot push yourself to be a birth photographer only for the money.
Your heart has to be so damn in it for whatever is your private and personal driving, passionate force behind your work.
You must have that driven passion because burn out is not only inevitable but so painstakingly predictable.
TWO MOST LIFE IMPACTING MOMENTS: WEDDING + BIRTH
I want to talk about professional wedding photography for a moment because it hits so close to home with birth. They are both events, and two of the events that happen to be life impacting and highly emotional moments of a person's life.
One of my closest friends (and birth client) is a wedding photographer at Organic Moments Photography.
Erica says, "our wedding clients invest an average of $8,000 - $12,000 in wedding photography with us."
So think about it, as a wedding photography client, you're excited for your photographer to be there for your entire wedding day from start to finish, and to get an album to treasure the memories after this incredible day has passed.
In this well worthy investment, if you find the right wedding photographer who truly sets your soul on fire- nowhere in this investment is there an allotted payment for being on-call.
Because most of the time, people do not spontaneously elope without any notice of the date or time or duration when they hire their wedding photographer.
There is usually a set location, date, and even timeline for the entire event from start to finish.
You're anticipating digital images, an album, your photographer's expertise, their time at your wedding, and their masterful creation of artwork.
Birth photography is not that different from weddings when you think about the amount of time and hard work that goes into such a tremendous milestone event.
But birth carries an unpredictable and sometimes complicated timeline, often stop and go, and that is where the differences start to set apart birth from weddings and other forms of photography.
Some births are short from the time of arrival of the photographer to birth and the first couple of post partum hours between parents and baby.
Sometimes you get 'lucky' and you are home with only six hours having past.
And sometimes things are not as straightforward and you are away from home for days at a time.
Some births happen on a day, timeline and location you were not planning for nor expecting, weeks ahead of time.
And when personal hardships come into play, when a birth client goes into labor outside of your on-call time, such as pre-term labor at 34 weeks, you end up not well prepared for handling your own personal hardships because you have only a moments notice.
Often times when moms contact me for a schedule c-section, it is often thought I would only be needed for a couple of hours.
Yet even with a scheduled cesarean so many times my clients will go into spontaneous labor before ever reaching their scheduled c-section date.
My youngest daughter who is two years old had an extremely high fever the night one of my clients went into labor. I realized when I left the house that night that my daughter had never been without me during one of her high fevers. I literally had a team assembled within minutes to preside over this poor child, and the pediatrician on stand-by. Between my husband, my mom, my sister-in-law and brother all taking shifts during the night to watch over her, I had it covered.
But earlier, as I arrived to my client's labor, she asked me how everything is going with my family and kids and I said: great!
The last thing I would want is for my client who was so very focused on her sacred birthing journey to worry about my fevering toddler and getting me back to her.
When you are a birth photographer, this is part of the job, to hold space for your new family, (your birth client).
BUT THEN THERE IS THE EMOTIONAL PAIN THAT COMES WITH HOLDING SPACE FOR A WOMAN IN LABOR WHO'S BIRTH IS NOT GOING HOW SHE HAD HOPED...
The very long labor that is taking away her hope, causing frustration, impatience, and exhaustion.
The difficult births where mom's voice is lost and you slowly see the sadness cross her face.
The births where she had hoped and planned to get relief but the hospital staff is not quick enough and you must watch her unwantingly struggle through intensity she cannot manage and it feels like it's your sister and you hurt for her...
The unplanned cesarean (like both of my girls - that just hits way too close to home)
And then there is loss, and trying to wrap your head around dealing with it once you're home.
But in between all those moments are also glorious moments of overflowing radiant joy, the kind that touches your heart, makes you smile ear to ear, laugh, rejoice, and tear up with pride.
You cannot just separate yourself.
It's not just a job.
You live through these stories.
They feel like your own.
You go home, and you continue to hold space for your sisters
Four years pass and you still remember every mom and baby's name. Partners, spouses, older siblings.
Because that's what you do when you're a birth photographer.
It's not solely photography
it is the honoring of a sacred birth journey through art.
to be continued....