Following an announcement earlier this week by Royal Brisbane and Women’s Hospital that they were essentially banning professional birth photographers from attending and documenting births, there was – not unexpectedly – an explosive outcry on social media. Brisbane-based birth photographer, Michelle Palasia launched a Change.org petition that in just 24 hours, has attracted over 12,500 signatures from angry parents, maternity care providers and even mental health professionals from across Australia.
From Palasia’s petition; “Queensland Health and the Royal Brisbane Women’s Hospital have introduced a new policy whereby NO photography of births will be allowed in either their birth centre or the birth suite.
They have confirmed that photography is permitted before the birth and after the birth, but no photography will be allowed of the actual birth itself. Anyone taking photos or filming during the birth will be told to stop or to leave the room.
As a birth photographer, I know that a documented birth story can act as a crucial therapeutic tool for postpartum families. It pieces together moments that are forgotten. Moments that are hazy. Moments that don’t make sense. To strip families of this powerful tool and leave them with an incomplete story is reprehensible.
A birth story cannot be documented without the images of your baby entering the world and the emotions experienced by yourself and your birth team. Seeing these images and reliving the moment you met your baby, floods the body with Oxytocin which not only enhances your relationship with your baby by triggering nurturing feelings and behaviours, but also assists in the release of milk in breastfeeding. Oxytocin is crucial during postpartum because it’s the “feel good/love” hormone and if we’re able to induce the natural production of this hormone, then we should be encouraging this by any means.
A documented birth story can also act as a therapy tool after a traumatic birth. I know of psychologists that have requested clients take their documented birth story with them to their appointment to help process what they’ve been through.
This is not just a policy targeted at birth photographers. NO photography of your baby entering the world will be permitted…not by your partner, not by your doula, not by anyone in your birth team!
This is yet another example of birth autonomy being stripped away from us.”
The hospital were quick to go into damage control, posting this on their Facebook page on December 19, 2018;
“Mums and dads across Brisbane can be assured there’s been no change in photography processes for births at RBWH.
As has always been the case, you and your birth partner are welcome to take personal photographs throughout your baby’s journey into the world, from beginning to end.
Professional photography and digital recording of births before and after delivery are also supported provided they do not interfere with the important role of our clinical staff in ensuring both mother and baby are safe. [my emphasis]
We have always encouraged our parents-to-be to document what is one of the most remarkable experiences you will ever have! As always, we do ask however that this is done in a way that supports the important job our midwives and doctors do. These are the people who are here, every day, making sure you and your baby’s first moments together are as healthy and special as can be, and we want that to continue.
While we make every effort to make our birthing suites as warm and homely as possible, they are clinical procedural areas. They are still highly technical areas with a range of emergency equipment on hand, so having additional people with additional equipment can potentially get in the way of the work our clinicians need to do.
Complications are rare, but can arise very quickly during a birth, so it’s crucial our team can perform their duties with the utmost care and attention, with no other distraction, so they can continue to provide focused care.
Mums-to-be choose Royal Brisbane and Women’s Hospital because of the high-quality, safe care we provide to mums and bubs, and we are proud to have a safety record here that is second to none.
We are also incredibly proud here at RBWH to accommodate the ways in which our parents-to-be wish to document their journey, however it’s critical we do this in a way that never compromises safe and healthy birth experiences for our mums and bubs.”
One does not need to read terribly deeply into this statement to see that the hospital has clearly targeted professional birth photographers, and not a partner who might be taking their own amateur photos during the labour or after the birth. They have also highlighted the clear distinction that birth photographers can come before or after the birth (although it’s not clear what they mean by ‘before the birth’ – because by definition; that would mean during the labour). I was surprised that they did not mention doulas, who frequently document a labour and birth for couples by taking photos, usually on their client’s own phone or camera.
Tabloid television also got in on the act with Channel 7 Sunrise running this appalling excuse for a segment yesterday morning;
As a doula, I have attended a number of births where a professional birth photographer has been hired by my client. Two births in particular that I had the incredible honour of supporting this year perfectly demonstrate the immense power and importance of professional birth photography. It saddens me deeply that we even have to defend these incredibly skilled professionals – but I feel that somebody has to, because while signing a petition is one thing, we have to do everything we can to ensure that women’s rights in childbirth are not permitted to be further eroded and yes – the right for a woman to have a professional photographer document the birth of her child is a human right in childbirth.
In early 2018, I was a doula to a beautiful soul called Sarah. I wrote about this birth in an earlier blog, which you might like to read (but please heed the trigger warning at the start of the blog). I knew ahead of time that Sarah’s baby had died in utero and so, without any training or preparation, I found myself transitioning from birth doula to death doula. In addition to doula support, Sarah had made a very conscious decision to document the birth of her son Aksel.
Award-winning Melbourne-based photographer Lacey Barratt captured her devastating journey from start to finish – from her emotional labour to a poignant second photo shoot the following day and finally Aksel’s funeral.
Sarah said the heart-wrenching gallery of images – which encapsulate her raw emotion and the tragedy of pregnancy loss – have helped her and husband Tim, begin to heal and are a way to honour their son’s memory.
‘I wanted a beautiful birth,’ Sarah, who is also mum to three-year-old Arthur, said. ‘But when we knew what the outcome of the birth would be, I still wanted to capture those moments.
‘I’ll never regret having those photographs taken. It is something for us to hold onto forever.’
You can read an article in New Idea about Sarah’s devastating loss and view some of Lacey’s extraordinary photos by clicking here (but again – please be aware that the story and the images may be triggering and upsetting for some people).
A few months later, I supported another client who was desperately wanting a VBAC, following the traumatic Caesarean birth of her son a couple of years earlier. Having a birth photographer there was an important decision for her, as she was determined the capture the precious moments she felt she’d been robbed of with her first birth. I’ve featured one of Kelly Jordan’s phenomenal photos on my website, where she captured the extraordinary moment that my client held her baby girl for the first time following an incredible, empowered and exulted vaginal birth. No one but an absolute pro could capture images like that. Not partner, not doula, no one. How does anyone believe that they have the right to deny a woman and her family precious memories captured for a lifetime?
“I can see that the presence of a photographer at something so primal and typically private can be viewed as just another indulgence for a generation of over-sharers. My birth photos, however, are a treasured memento of my greatest achievement. The photos don’t just capture a birth, they allow me to view my birth as an outsider. They let me see my husband’s face as I lifted our daughter into the world. They froze our feelings at that instant, feelings that I would never have had the joy of witnessing. Birth is something that should be celebrated and enjoyed”.
The flimsy excuse provided by Royal Brisbane and Women’s Hospital; that birth suites are ‘highly technical areas with a range of emergency equipment on hand’ and that, ‘having additional people with additional equipment can potentially get in the way of the work our clinicians need to do’ is absolute bullshit and everyone knows it.
Birth photographers are highly skilled professionals who have far more understanding about the process of birth and hospital protocols than any partner or family member ever would. This is their job for goodness sake! They are respectful, quiet, unobtrusive and know exactly when to step back into the corner. The only equipment they carry is a camera. The don’t have lights or tripods or leads or anything else that could get in the way or be deemed a hazard to hospital staff.
Let’s get to the real heart of the matter, shall we? The real reason – the only reason – that a hospital would want to ban birth photographers is because the hospital is terrified of being sued. Of something being caught on camera or film that could potentially be used against them or a care provider in a court of law. Fear of litigation is what is really behind this absurd new “rule”.
In 2013, in the United States, a woman called Kimberly Turbin made headlines around the world when her disturbing birth video captured her doctor giving her a forced episiotomy – causing public outcry among an army of supporters after it was posted on YouTube (again, trigger warning here – some people may find the content of this video very upsetting).
The Superior Court of California for the County of Los Angeles ruled that Ms. Turbin was subjected to an egregious act of obstetric violence which was recorded on video. The footage, which was taken by Ms Turbin’s sister on her phone, was critical in bringing a lawsuit against the doctor, who shortly after the federal lawsuit was filed against him, voluntarily surrendered his medical license.
To quote the late, great Elie Wiesel, Nobel Peace Prize winner, Holocaust survivor, author and humanitarian; “We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere.”
While Channel 7 sees fit to ridicule those women who seek out a professional birth photographer to capture some of the most important moments in their life, let us not fool ourselves into believing that this is just another battle being waged by the ‘crunchy natural birth brigade’.
Today it is birth photographers.
Tomorrow it will be doulas.
We’re already seeing a sustained, vicious attack on Australia’s midwives, and in particular, independent midwives.
We’re already seeing women being torn to shreds in the media for the deeply personal choices they have made about how they wish to birth their child.
Are you starting to see a pattern here?
The famous poem by Martin Niemoller has inspired me – because we have to speak out.
First they came for the birth photographers. And I did not speak out. Because I was not a birth photographer. Then they came for the doulas. And I did not speak out. Because I was not a doula. Then they came for the midwives. And I did not speak out. Because I was not a midwife. Then they came for the mothers. And I did not speak out. Because I was not a mother. Then they came for me. And there was no one left. To speak out for me.
Birth is the core of our human existence. It is something we should ALL care about. Don’t let hospitals – or anyone for that matter – dictate something that is probably our most basic, fundamental human right; how, where and with whom we choose to give birth.
Tanya Strusberg is the founder of birthwell birthright and the co-founder of Lamaze Australia. She is a Melbourne-based Lamaze Certified Childbirth Educator, doula and a Fellow of the Association of Certified Childbirth Educators (FACCE). Tanya is also a member of the Lamaze International Board of Directors, the first non-North American to ever serve on the board in Lamaze’s 60-plus year history. She is a passionate advocate for women’s maternity care and her articles have appeared in The Journal of Perinatal Education, Australian Midwifery News, Science & Sensibility, Interaction – the journal of the Childbirth and Parenting Educators Association of Australia (CAPEA), International Doula, Empowering Birth Magazine and Rockstar Birth Magazine. Through her internationally-accredited Lamaze Educator Training program, she is very excited to be training a new generation of Australian Lamaze educators. Last, but absolutely not least, she is also the mum of two beautiful children, her son Liev and daughter Amalia.