Labor, Love, and the Power of Choice

January 22, 2020

By Fujifilm (Sponsored)

All Photos © Alice Proujansky

Student midwife Britt Duncan holds one-day-old Diallo Gordon-White's during a post-partum home visit.

Documentary photographer Alice Proujansky shows the realities of childbirth, and how effective women’s healthcare can make all the difference.

When photographer Alice Proujansky’s parents gave her a point-and-shoot camera at seven years old, she used it for the first time to take photos at her sister’s birth. Decades later, she is still documenting childbirth and motherhood.

Since 2006, Proujansky has told the stories of pregnant women across the United States through image and text. She’s learned that while women everywhere share deep commonalities during childbirth, each experience varies greatly depending on the type of care they receive. “In some settings, birth can be overwhelming, dangerous, and scary,” Proujansky shares, “while in others, it can be the most beautiful thing I have seen.”

Shawnna Jackson-Haynes, 22, labors at home, surrounded by her mother, sister and cousin.

Through her work, Proujansky hopes to empower mothers-to-be by showing them their rights throughout their pregnancies and during birth, and encouraging healthcare providers to make responsible choices by showing them that their actions have public health consequences. In addition to her images, Proujansky includes texts that tell the stories of midwives as they prepare to deliver a baby, her own experiences of motherhood, and the healthcare practices in the regions where she photographs.

Midwife Rebecca Polston listens to Shawnna Jackson-Haynes’ fetal heart tones as she labors at Roots Community Birth Center. Polston is Minnesota’s only black Certified Professional Midwife and provides culturally-focused care.

Proujansky has come to learn that a mom feels most powerful when she makes the decisions. There isn’t a one-size-fits-all model of childbirth—what matters most is for individuals to be able to make the choices that make them feel comfortable. For instance, a mother she worked with in Minnesota felt that her practitioner was not truly listening to her, and as a result she lost a significant amount of weight and battled severe anxiety. After switching to a midwife who was more attentive and helped guide her in the right direction, she had a healthy pregnancy. “This kind of good care has positive, measurable health benefits,” Proujansky says. “I want to tell these stories so that they can serve as lessons for other women and families who are about to go through the same process.”

Shawnna Jackson-Haynes, 22, reacts to pain from breastfeeding her son, Knowledge Jackson, during her postpartum home visit. Midwife Assistant Hayley Jackson prepares to assist her.

For Proujanksy, the most important thing when she’s around the family on the actual day of labor is to be able to sense the energy of the room and be as invisible as possible once labor begins. The way she shoots and the camera she uses changes depending on the type of birth the mother has chosen, as some births are very quiet in a very dark setting, while others are animated and lit with bright fluorescent lights.

Adam Stern supports his wife, midwife Sarit Shatken-Stern, as she labors at the hospital where she works.
Midwife Sarit Shatken-Stern holds her daughter Ramona shortly after her birth.

No matter the setting, “I want to show women that labor isn’t this terrifying thing that they have no control over,” she says. “I hope to show them that if they get the care they deserve, birth can be beautiful. Beautiful like a storm; mysterious, yet naturally powerful.”
Ultimately, Proujansky hopes her projects can be resources for women everywhere. “You also have the right to a provider you feel is respecting you individually and culturally, giving you accurate information and allowing you to make choices that feel right to you,” she says. Proujansky emphasizes the fact that the entire pregnancy should be focused on the mother and not the provider or any facility. While labor can be frightening and difficult, Proujansky states that if people are able to make informed decisions about their care, they report being less traumatized and more satisfied with the experience due to a sense of control. “I love my job,” she says. “I think it’s amazing that I get to make a difference in people’s lives.”

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