Casting an unflinching eye onto the realities of giving birth during the pandemic, LA-based photographer Maggie Shannon’s award-winning project is an important document of an often-unseen yet universal experience. Through her candid photographs, she captures the highs and lows of childbirth.
“It started with a conversation in early March 2020 with my friend Paige Schwimer, who’s a doula in Los Angeles. We were talking about how the Covid-19 pandemic could adversely affect women. She mentioned hearing that there could be a rise in home births due to mothers wanting to avoid the hospital and with partners being banned from the delivery room. My curiosity was piqued so I started calling midwives across the country to see if and how their practice had shifted. The midwives were overwhelmed by requests from new clients desperate to give birth outside of a hospital and I found their story so important. What does it look like to give birth in a time of such chaos and shifting medical protocol? Four midwives in Los Angeles invited me to follow them as they did home visits, and also introduced me to women that would be open for me to come and photograph their birth.”
34-year-old Los Angeles-based photographer Maggie Shannon is telling the story behind her recently released project Extreme Pain, but Also Extreme Joy—a searing black and white document of midwifery in modern America that she began after California went into lockdown, following the outbreak of the virus.
Though not a midwife herself, Shannon’s mother was a registered nurse, and her father had duties as a paramedic, so the medical world has always been familiar to her. Later on in her life, one of her closest friends worked with a midwife for the birth of her first child and Shannon was fascinated by the process. “The idea of giving women agency over their bodies is extremely important to me. The midwives empower women to make their own choices and choose what their body experiences, whether that means terminating an unwanted pregnancy or having a birth at home or in a hospital,” she says. She found the midwives to work with on the project in a number of ways, including through Google and referrals by other people. Some she followed for just a day or two, while others she returned to again and again.
Shannon’s parents moved around a lot when she was growing up, so she spent time in Boston and Florida before the family moved permanently to Martha’s Vineyard, a tiny island off the east coast of Massachusetts. “It’s such a special place and I feel grateful that I was able to grow up there surrounded by so much natural beauty,” she says. “It had the feeling of a small town, where everyone knows each other and everyone’s business.” She loved art when she was young, but really got the “photography bug”, as she calls it, when she studied at Hampshire College. “My first photo professor, Kane Stewart, made it come alive for me, and I still remember developing my first print in the darkroom. I thought it was such an incredible way to tell stories and explore the world.”
The images in Extreme Pain, but Also Extreme Joy capture the throes of both the physical pains and the emotional endurance involved in labor in visceral ways. Moving between scenes of clenched teeth and gripping hands, as well as forehead kisses and embraces between lovers, it’s a full and felt observation of the process seen by a sensitive eye. And in repeatedly foregrounding moments of connection as she does, Shannon reveals what the project is really about at its heart: the importance of the relationships made between expectant mothers and the people who help to bring their children into the world. “I was looking for moments of intimacy, touch and care,” she says. “A midwife told me recently that the most important tool in her kit is her hands; she can tell so much about a woman’s pregnancy just through touch. I loved this concept, especially in a time where touch and closeness could mean exposure to the virus.”
Shannon wanted it to be an unflinching representation of the process, at least in part, she says, because of the lack of “truthful documentation” of childbirth there is elsewhere. “I grew up watching TV shows where the mother is wheeled away huffing and puffing, and then 5 minutes later you see her holding a clean infant,” she explains. “To me, this disrespects and downplays the extraordinary strength of women. As a documentary photographer, I wanted to show the truth of labor and celebrate these women, in moments of both strength and exhaustion. It’s so universal, and I hope these sorts of images become the norm.”
Shot in black and white and illuminated by heavy flash, Shannon’s pictures are both soft and dramatic—an aesthetic choice Shannon made intuitively, she says. “The color seemed distracting and made the images less emotionally powerful.” She tried it to begin with, she explains, but almost immediately “an image became about a colorful dress or even a teal wall instead of about a small moment between a mother and her midwife.” In this way, a more classic documentary approach just felt right for this story.
One of Shannon’s favorite images, entitled Joy, depicts a father kissing the top of his new daughter’s head. “This moment happened so fast—the midwife had just handed the newborn to the mother in the tub and the dad leaped into the birthing pool, splashing everyone, he was so excited! But then it all slowed down for this gentle little kiss on top of her head. It was so intimate and lovely,” she recalls.
Another of her favorites, called Pepper Tree, happened outside of midwife Chemin Perez’s birth center. “She often encourages laboring mothers to walk around the neighbourhood if a birth isn’t progressing, so I followed the couple and the student midwife outside. It was a beautiful summer day and we stopped when Taylor’s contractions became too strong. I love how her hands are wrapped around her husband’s neck under this beautiful tree. It felt very special, being in the sunlight and seeing this moment unfold. Sometimes it feels like we take birth out of context, trying to stuff it into this disinfected medical box. The midwife said that she’s had mothers give birth outside at night under the stars. There’s something pretty incredible about that.”
Elsewhere, some of the series’ most impactful images are also ones in which groups of people are gathered around the central figure of a mother in labor—caring, leaning in, loving. Appearing like contemporary versions of classic paintings, they are visualizations of care and support systems in action. Others show the waiting, the anticipation and the slowness before the action.
Shannon is now looking to continue the project, and she recently travelled to Michigan for a week to do so. In time, she hopes to work with midwives across the country. After her time shooting so far, and the many hours she’s spent shadowing the midwives she’s met along the way, Shannon has seen first hand how complicated the pressures faced by both midwives and pregnant women can truly be. “I still have so much to learn about it all, but that’s also part of the fun of this story—learning more about my own body and pregnancy,” she says warmly. “I think that that is something we could be better about—education. There is still a lot of stigma attached to working with a midwife as well. I’ve had male colleagues say things like, ‘Well, I hope you would never do that!’ which is just awful. It’s a woman’s choice to make and women should know all of their options for giving birth.” Ultimately, she hopes that her photographs, tender and emphatic in their message, will go some way towards that journey.
This work was selected as a winner of LensCulture’s Black & White Photography Awards 2021. See all of this year’s winners.