Visual Representation of Birth, a paper

This paper was written in 2009, and gave me time to reflect upon the work I had been making up until that point, the research directly informing my approach to the making of Lilla's Birthing and A Portrait of a Labour in 2010. With thanks to the artists who have kindly granted permission for me to reproduce their work and to Professor Griselda Pollock at the University of Leeds for her support. Credits, references and links can be found at the bottom of the page, although for a more comprehensive list of related websites please see the Links page on the right.

For some years I have been photographing pregnant women and their birthings. While I had created some powerful images during labours, the results of this project never quite satisfied me. There was something lacking in these images, and I did not seek to exhibit them. My images of birthing (but significantly not those of the pregnant form) had provoked a somewhat horrified reaction in some individuals. I initially found this surprising, but coupled with my own dissatisfaction with them I began to question the work, my motivation in making it and the wider socio-political implications of creating and exhibiting artwork concerned with this subject matter.
An understanding of the iconography of childbirth demands an understanding of the history and political background of birthing within midwifery and obstetric practice, which are in turn embedded within socio-political institutions of patriarchy, religion and capitalism. I had made my images of birthing without a conscious awareness of the implications of such a weight of the history and social politics underwriting and informing them. My original motivation, to expose what I felt was an unnecessarily hidden aspect of women’s lives and experiences, was a response to my realisation that my very first encounter with labouring was my own. I had virtually no visual or other representations and absolutely no direct experience of birthing. This seemed to me to be wrong, equivalent to asking somebody to operate a car without ever even having been a passenger in one. It was not simply the mechanics of giving birth I was unfamiliar with, it was the entire process, as I found I had absolutely no idea of what constituted normality within this context.
Although not ‘mistrustful of and alienated from my body’ nor ‘convinced that knowledge of my body was a matter for “experts”’ and certainly not a subscriber to the wilful ignorance of ‘a surprising number of women - not simply poor and illiterate but educated and middle class - [who] approach labour insisting that they want to know as little about it as possible’  I was, however, both mentally and practically unprepared.1  My first labour was, I know now, absolutely ‘normal’, where this definition is always applied in retrospect, and has little if anything to do with the woman’s experience or autonomy but is determined in terms of levels of medical intervention required. The photographs taken at my request concentrate on the emergence of the baby. I was pleased with the images. I did not find them shocking or unpleasant; I did not feel exposed or objectified by them. It did not occur to me that anyone else would see them differently, and that my own participation in and memories of the events depicted contextualised and cushioned them.

Figure 1: Nearly New Nathaniel
photographed by Nicky Bird 1998

Figure 2: Elinor Crowning  
photographed by Ellinda Siu 2002

My next experience of birthing was as photographer at a home birth. Both this and subsequent birthings I attended, assisted, photographed and enjoyed, added to my understanding of the process of birthing which my first hand experience of it had begun, and informed my own second labour immensely despite it being a difficult delivery. I became even more convinced that this topic needed greater exposure than it generally gets, but still did not feel that my own work successfully addressed my concerns, nor articulated the experiences of the women involved.

Figure 3: Water Birth 2006

Figure 4: The Crowning 2001

‘Childbirth’ and ‘giving birth’ concentrate attention on the event of (the child’s) birth rather than on the (woman’s) process of labouring. The phrase ‘birthing’ seems to better represent the woman’s activity, without the negative connotations of being in labour or labouring (although I am not trying to deny that the activity of birthing is very hard work) and to refocus attention on her as an active player in her own bodily processes. Childbirth has also been taken to mean anything associated with very young babies, as database searches using this phrase exemplify.2
Pre-Christian and non-western representations of birthing women have some striking similarities. They represent the women as active rather than passive, generally upright, empowered and doing rather than having done to them. They may or may not be shown as having helpers, or birth attendants, but the whole woman is clearly depicted. The viewer generally encounters her before the emerging baby, and by representing the face and expression of the woman rather than concentrating attention on the baby, which is often much less clearly (if at all) depicted, her subjectivity is paramount and her process more important than the event of the birth. (Figures 5-8) These early or ‘primitive’ images may represent birthing mothers as goddesses or fertility icons, but their status, agency and physical activity as women is clearly expressed.

Figure 5: From the Temple of Hathor at Dendera  
circa 30BC
Figure 6: Childbirth: Peruvian idol found in burial places
(Wellcome Library, London)
Figure 7: Stone relief from Isolda Dell’ Sacra, Ostia,
1st Century CE
Figure 8: Detail from The Makomad Hairiri Neshki 1237.
A copy of a work done in the year 635 of the Hegira
by Mahmud ibn Yahyn Aul Hasan ibn Kuvarriha al Wasidi

There are many images of ‘childbirth scenes’ which depict the post-partum period but historically very few which refer to the actuality of how babies are physically delivered.  Portrayals of the birth of Mary, of Jesus and other individuals of cultural or historic importance all tell us more about the wider social customs at the times of the creation of the works than their birthing practices. During the twentieth century the subject of childbirth became less of a taboo artistically, but ‘still tended to focus more on the gestational and postnatal periods, and the actual business of birth is by and large seriously underrepresented.’ 3  The Nativity, acted out annually in thousands of school halls, conventionally entirely ignores the actuality of birth in a play almost entirely devoted to the subject. Film and television fictions represent childbirth as a medical emergency where the emphasis is on a panicked rush to the safety of the hospital where the woman disappears behind closed doors. We never see her labouring or her birthing.
Looking through general art and photography books, and even those with a focus on the human body or women’s practice, the subject is almost invisible, with perhaps a naked gravid torso or two at best (although Judy Chicago and Edward Lucie-Smith’s Women and Art Contested Territory is a notable exception with an entire chapter devoted to maternity). This is surprising given the attention paid by feminist theoreticians to the mother in general and birthing specifically.
The traditional exclusion of men from birthing rooms, the absence of artistic or other cultural representations by women and a belief in the ‘unclean’ nature of birthing may all be contributory factors in why this aspect of human experience was and still is taboo. A browse through the early obstetric textbooks and manuals on midwifery reveal another consideration, however. These texts, aimed at a medical reader, concentrate almost exclusively on malpresentation and physical deformities and typically contain images of the most grotesque and violent kind. Given their purpose there is no requirement for portrayals of positive birthing and normal deliveries barely figure. There was and still is a popular curiosity regarding the internal workings of the human body, and disturbing images of this type will have influenced the public imaginary concerning childbirth. Their graphic depictions are patently unrealistic, however. In figures 9 and 10 below the foetuses are shown during a craniotomy and embryotomy by decapitation, procedures which were performed blind, the implements inserted through the vagina into the uterus and directed only through touch. These images therefore present an imaginative and ideologically informed envisioning of  events which cannot in reality be seen. They encourage identification with and sympathy for the foetus, but by reducing the mother to her reproductive interior, open her up as a visual object of study. The body of the foetus is represented within naturalistic artistic conventions but the woman is diagrammatically realised.

Figure 9: Illustration from Atlas De L’Art Des Accouchements
plate 99 1871
Figure 10: Illustration from The Science and Art of Midwifery p. 421 1885

 Modern textbooks for midwives and obstetricians do no better at adequately representing birthing women. Despite the vast majority of women experiencing normal labour, photographs are largely used to depict the damage sustained during abnormal (although this word is rarely used) deliveries. The stages of normal deliveries are almost invariably represented visually through drawn or graphic illustrations. Some interesting features are revealed through these representations, where women are routinely dissected, but the babies rarely if ever are, and even when depicted whole, women are often faceless, or without mouths or other features. Despite information on alternative birthing postures, the default pose in all other representations is the supine (passive and inert) position.

Figure 11: Illustration from Myles Textbook for Midwives
p. 392 1999
Figure 12: Illustration from The Midwife’s Labour and Birth Handbook
p. 121 2009

The attitudes implied by these medical illustrations may reveal those inherent in obstetric practice. William Hunter’s somewhat unfeeling introduction to his obstetric atlas The Anatomy of the Human Gravid Uterus published in 1774, where he congratulates himself on having ‘had so many opportunities of illustrating this subject... owing to fortunate circumstances’   which circumstances are the premature and presumably horrific deaths of women in the second stage of labour. 4 It is difficult to determine if this level of cavalier disregard for these women is grounded in class prejudice, misogyny, singleminded pursuit of knowledge or a reverence for science over humanity. I find it impossible to regard these engravings without imagining the women involved. It is difficult, however, to understand how groundbreaking such work was, and how ignorant of the internal workings of the human body people had previously been. Hunter and others like him now appear to have expressed insufficient concern for the welfare of these women, and there seems something gratuitous about the life-sized illustrations, but their presentation of the dead woman as meaty object and the infant as fresh, vibrant and intact subject continues in medical illustration today. ‘The net result is an image that is intimate yet impersonal, suggestive of humanity yet butchered, celebrating the act of generation, yet also conveying violated female sexuality. [...] Indeed, there is a notable contrast in the depictions of mother and child – the latter is treated tenderly while the former appears mutilated.’5  From handbooks for midwives to the illustrations in magazines aimed at pregnant women, the depictions of sliced, dissected women’s bodies and the inviolate foetus within them is universal, and elicits identification with the baby and a dissociation from the mother, who is reduced to mere setting. In a direct reversal of the ideology embedded in ‘primitive’ representation modern imagery spells out the primacy of the infant over the mother.
Hunter believed in the objective truth of naturalistic representation, claiming an authenticity for his images which scientific and medical narratives often assume, but Hunter’s realism is culturally produced, amongst other things emphasising the close physical bond between the mother and the foetus which reinforced and was reinforced by contemporary thinking on kinship, the role of the mother and the interweaving of nature and society. Hunter (and science) privilege sight over the other senses, equating seeing with knowing, and by exposing the interior of the human form to light achieving intellectual penetration.  

Figure 13: Self Portrait with Dead Mother 2010
Figure 14: Engraving from Anatomia Uteri Humani Gravidi  plate VI 1774 (1851 edn.)


Other conventions established or confirmed by the Atlas and other contemporary publications which continue today are the representation of the female in the supine (or lithotomy) position, the assumption of the ‘foot of the bed’ point of view, the foregrounding and centralising of the genital area within the image, and the cropping out of the woman once the foetus emerges.
From its very early beginnings obstetric medicine has systematically sought both to undermine the role of the (female) midwife and the ability of the mother. Traditionally a woman’s occupation, the seventeenth century fashion in France for male accoucheurs spread throughout the western world. This trend followed more than three centuries of witch hunts during which midwives were specifically persecuted - as ‘the greatest injuries to the Faith as regards the heresy of witches are done by midwives; and this is made clearer than daylight itself by the confessions of some who were afterwards burned’6   - and a period of intense general misogyny where eighty-five percent of those killed were women.7   The man midwives, physicians and male barber-surgeons propagated the idea of the filthy, illiterate harmful midwives, and the physically and psychologically weak women they attended. Although barber-surgeons had previously attended ‘difficult births’ their methods were crude involving hacking at the unborn foetus within the womb with an assortment of hooks, spiked forceps for crushing the skull, and amputation wires. This killed the child, and frequently mutilated or killed the mother too.
The protracted dispute over the routine introduction of men into the delivery room combines elements of gender, religious, and class bias, which were utilised by both sides in the argument which is irreducible to any one of these interwoven and mutually dependent issues. Midwifery had been one of the few occupations available to women. Although often considered of lower class or caste, and generally illiterate, the specialised knowledge transmitted orally and experientially enabled a degree of financial and some limited social independence to individual midwives, particularly in situations where they were in short supply. The midwives were accused of superstitious meddling, ineptitude and filthy ignorance but given that training for physicians at the time consisted of theology not clinical practice, and asepsis and bacterial infection were unknown concepts ‘dirt was a presence in any medical situation – real dirt, not the misogynistic dirt associated by males with the female body.’8  The midwives accused the men of immodesty, harmful interventionism, and greedy pursuit of profit. That large amounts of money were to be made from birthing was undeniable (Hunter’s midwifery practice financed his costly Atlas), but does not fully explain the concerted efforts being made to medicalise and control midwifery. Even where male intervention was undeniably putting women at increased risk of death (there were substantially higher death rates amongst parturient women in lying in hospitals staffed by men: that this was due to the practice of performing autopsies before attending birthings was unknown, but various practitioners noticed the statistics) medicalisation continued. The argument that this was in the best interest of mother and child patently was not true. The money to be made from wealthy women’s birthing was already predominantly earned by obstetricians and male midwives. The forging of the newly emerging medical industry was perhaps the greatest consideration.
Around this time, other trades had been organising themselves into guilds and professional bodies. Partly due to their scattered nature, their illiteracy and their lack of political might the traditional midwives were unable to do so. Later moves by some better educated (and socially higher class) women to obtain professional status, training and qualifications for midwives resulted in a disadvantageous situation for most practitioners. The Midwives Institute, established in 1866, represented the good intentions of a privileged elite of Victorian ladies, who reinvented themselves as midwifery managers and expected not only that practicing midwives would subscribe to the culture and morality of the upper classes, but would also acquiesce to the authority of the medical profession, which the Institute did not challenge. Suddenly regulated, the traditional midwives faced impractical rules and a punitive disciplinary committee which exercised almost unlimited power without even the pretence of fairness, admitting hearsay evidence against midwives in a stark echo of the earlier witch hunt trials. Mavis Kirkham of The Association of Radical Midwives has
long puzzled over why the Inspectors of Midwives were so punitive towards working class midwives at a time when the Lady Factory Inspectors were so enlightened... Midwives were much more socially problematic. They had to be controlled because their practice was perceived as a potential threat to medical practice on the one hand whilst on the other hand being ‘with women’ in working class practice was perceived as a threat to midwifery leaders’ aspirations to raise the status of midwifery to that of a profession. Ironically that status could only be raised by subservience to the medical powerholders. Thus the non-medical inspectors, in many different senses policed midwifery on behalf of the medical profession. 9
Midwifery failed to establish itself as of equal status with other branches of medicine and science, and the impact of this failure resounds today. We still have a situation where the majority of well known or ‘celebrity’ experts on childbirth are male obstetricians who are able to use their status to influence birthing trends. Paternal concepts of what constitutes good mothering change, and with each fashion comes another television series and book deal.
In Birth Reborn, broadcast by the BBC in 1982, Michel Odent presented his ‘revolutionary techniques’ concerning childbirth. Happy at that point to allow cameras into the labour room,10  his advocacy of natural birth and avoidance of the ‘stranded beetle position’ in favour of supported squatting may in fact justify the narrator’s claim that couples, ‘rather than submit to the practices of orthodox modern childbirth in their local hospital [...] entrust themselves and their baby to a man who many women feel has restored dignity and humanity to childbirth: Doctor Michel Odent’.11  Whether Odent has simply replaced the old orthodoxy with his new one is arguable, however. Odent, we learn, insists that ’once a mother has committed herself to him [...] there can be no going back. However painful the birth there will be no recourse to drugs or painkillers’. 12  He seems to have replaced one system of control with another, and this attitude towards pain relief in childbirth has unfortunate echoes of those of the thirteen hundreds  when it was considered a sin (and a sign of witchcraft) to use medicinal herbs to alleviate the ‘curse of Eve’. There are convincing arguments against the use of many modern forms of pain relief used in labour, but Odent’s absolutism denies parturient women at his clinic any choice in the matter, and for many of them it is simply their nearest, not one they have chosen because of his philosophy.
Odent is primarily concerned with the newborn, not the mother, taking his lead from Leboyer’s sentimental Birth Without Violence. Odent regards birth as having the potential to change society, to be truly transformative when millions of men have witnessed it. His paternalism is explicit throughout the film: in one scene he literally takes the place of the supportive husband, tapping him on the shoulder as if cutting in to a dance, and holding the naked woman during the final moments before the child is born at his feet. Odent (dressed in pale clothing) is in control of this birthing experience, not the woman in labour.
This film contrasts in nearly every way with the 2007 treatment of the subject in BBC Three’s Dawn Gets A Baby, where a female journalist sets off to find ‘the truth about childbirth’.13   Childless herself, Dawn suffers from tocophobia (fear of childbirth) and despite a somewhat immature approach to her investigation, this programme reveals more information from the birthing woman’s point of view than perhaps any of the many ‘educational’ DVDs available online.14  Interestingly, the programme not only broadcast actual birthing scenes, but deals openly with sexuality and motherhood, exploring two taboo issues in one. The opening credits warn that the film contains offensive language, nudity, ‘blood and gore’ and ‘extreme human suffering’, may ‘reduce you to tears’ or ‘make you sick’  but there is no warning of the frank discussion of mothers as sexual beings, possibly the programme’s most controversial aspect. 15
Imagining childbirth as ‘a severe traumatic accident you spend the rest of your life recovering from’ Dawn’s first experience of a birth is via the internet where she is horrified to see a woman in the supine position being given an episiotomy during a heavily medicalised second stage of labour, her ‘first glimpse of a real birth [being] much worse than she had anticipated’.16 The reporter acts as a foil, exploring in her scatty-naive presenting style all manner of questions women often feel embarrassed or intimidated asking. The two births the programme features are honestly and sympathetically treated and the programme combines humour with information in a very accessible way, and importantly, without sentimentalising motherhood. Nothing is sacred, from piles to placentas, parturition myths are demolished and fears rationalised.
The concentration on all the mothers’ subjective experiences in Dawn Gets A Baby (rather than the authority of the medical establishment signified by the measured tones of the male narrator in Birth Reborn) gives their narratives authority and therefore their agency and ability are emphasised. As Dawn comments, ‘Now that I know the process and what to expect it’s not that scary. I didn’t know any of that.’17 With information and experience comes confidence and empowerment.
Attempts by artists and curators since the 1960’s to exhibit work relating to birthing have met with considerable resistance. Feminist artists who have sought to represent this aspect of women’s experience in both celebratory and antipathetic terms have attracted attention to the subject, but often hostility to the work and themselves. The inclusion of Monica Sjoo’s God Giving Birth in the Swiss Cottage library exhibition Womanpower in 1973 attracted negative media and police attention. Her female mixed race god in the act of parturition, naked, upright and returning the viewers gaze was considered controversial. Not much had apparently changed by 1997 when Flowers East Gallery withdrew a painting of a birthing woman by Jonathan Waller the day before the exhibition opening. The Baby exhibition at Bradford Media Museum (2009) included every aspect of babyhood apart from actual birth, something the museums website glosses over with the statement ‘today we are used to photographs of childbirth. However, some people feel that when such images are taken by commercial and art photographers, this oversteps the boundary between the private and the public domain’  without offering an explanation of who ‘some people’ are or how this decision was reached. 18 It is interesting to compare this with the sixteenth century reluctance to ‘print any details involving midwifery for reasons of modesty and indecency’.19
Other artworks have dealt less positively with the subject of birthing, with perhaps Judy Chicago’s Birth Tear/Tear (1982) being the best known example, representing childbirth as painful, violent  and damaging to women’s physical and social health ( A more documentary style such as Monika Englund’s in En Fӧdelse (A Birth) may indicate the process, but barely represents the mother as she is lost amongst the delivering of her child (Figure 17). Only a few images of Lisa in the shower indicate any sense of her doing, as opposed to the many images of her submitting to invasive  procedures.

Figure 15: Mother No.27 Jonathan Waller 1996

Figure 16: Mother No.58 Jonathan Waller 1998

Figure 17:Photograph from En Fӧdelse p 71 1982
Figure 18: Photograph from En Fӧdelse p 28 1982

The split between an essentialist feminist view of motherhood as symbolic of women’s power and creativity and the opposite view which regards motherhood as so problematic that some theorists including Donna Haraway and Shulamith Firestone have advocated the rejection of the reproductive body, regarding pregnancy as a violation of female subjectivity and a system of patriarchal control over women. This stance has been regarded as extreme and unworkable, however as the low status and value of reproduction is socially determined, the threat (or even the possibility of the threat) by women to stop production could serve to make reproductive labour more highly valued.  

Figure 19: God Giving Birth 1968 Monica Sjoo
Figure 20: Brand New Mother 2001

Curator Helen Knowles encountered difficulties exhibiting Birth Rites, organised in response to the absence of childbirth in art, initially using Glasgow Science Centre before splitting the works between two sites, the University of Salford’s School of Nursing and Midwifery and The Royal College of Gynaecology in London. ‘We didn’t originally intend to show it in science venues. We intended it for art galleries. But what we’re finding is that there’s still a lot of fear around the subject matter.’ 20 During a visit to Salford it was disappointing to find that some of the works have been withdrawn from public display, and in one case appeared to have been censored. (Figures 21- 22) The photograph depicts an ‘ecstatic’ birthing woman, and it may be this sexual reference which had perhaps caused offence.

Figure 21: Unmedicated first-time mother (Therese),
experiencing birth ecstacy 
Valerie Gramm circa 1982
Figure 22: Unmedicated first-time mother (Therese), experiencing birth prudery 2009

It is interesting to compare work made by artists with medical images of birthing, particularly as many of these artists have felt that they had no frames of reference and no established canon of work on the subject. While this may be true, certain commonalities or conventions emerge, whether consciously observed or not, which indicate how far medical representations have established themselves as the norm. There are also strong connotations with erotic depictions of women, from Courbet’s L’Origine Du Monde to present day pornography ('Origine_du_monde).
The perspective is frequently that of foot of the bed voyeur (after Louis XIV), the supine or upright full frontal nude woman shown with her legs wide apart. The genital area is centralised and foregrounded, the focal point of the work. As soon as the baby emerges, the woman is often cropped out of the images which concentrate wholly on the event of the birth rather than the process or experience of birthing.
Even in the more woman-centred works which attempt to retain the subjective presence of the birthing mother, elements of medical illustrative conventions emerge. In several of Waller’s huge canvases, the icons of medical imagery’s shorthand for ‘mother’ (pelvis and uterus) are painted into the portrait, rendering her subject and medical object simultaneously.
The importance of the visual spectacle over every other form of experience is summed up by artist Ghislaine Howard, who ‘realised the irony that I, the mother, was the only one of those present not to have witnessed the event’, her later paintings of the birthing of other women giving her an opportunity ‘to recapture something of [her] own history’.21  To witness, to have observed, is generally deemed to hold more authority in childbirth than to have done.

Figure 23: Birth Painting 1993 Ghislaine Howard

Figure 24: Birth Painting number 2 1993 Ghislaine Howard

Medicine, although an unreflexive institution, is part of the capitalist system which does respond to market forces. Capitalism, however, can also generate and manipulate market demands in response to its own changing needs. Having successfully privatised childbirth, reducing risk of death to the infant/product and increasing control over reproduction, the highly technologised and pathologised  management of birthing in America and the west is increasingly expensive.  Based on fear, the argument that women and their children need a highly interventionist obstetric practice has been so successful that it would be difficult now to withdraw. However, perceived as the consumers’ choice, ‘natural’ childbirth - which was once the prerogative of the middle classes who could afford to pay for their choices - is now becoming increasingly normative. Allowing mothers to look after their own newborns, encouraging fathers into the labour ward and shorter stays in hospital post-partum all reduce staff costs. Home births are far cheaper than hospital ones. The increased caesarean rate has been implicated with cost and convenience over clinical need, but to convince women en masse to reject intervention in favour of natural birthing would be to dramatically reduce maternity care costs. The images from Women Giving Birth (figures 25 - 26) promote ‘active childbirth’, the medical term for natural birthing.

Figure 25: Photograph from 
Women Giving Birth p 17 1992

Figure 26: Photograph from 
Women Giving Birth p 20 1992




I do not wish to advocate a return to some ‘golden age’ of birthing: there is none. I can see the dangers of presenting birthing in terms of an essentialist ‘primal mother’ fantasy, or rather, as Julia Kristeva puts it, ‘an idealization...of the relationship between her and us’.22 Essentialist feminism runs the risk of conflating femininity with motherhood, and by placing the maternal too centrally threatens the re-establishing of patriarchal definitions of woman in terms of her biology, and yet to reject ‘the real experience that this fantasy obscures’ is to undermine or wilfully dismiss what can and is a positive and sometimes transformative aspect of some women’s experience.23  Obviously the practicalities of the birthing experience heavily determine how far this is or can be true for most women, and it helps when a woman can approach her labour with high levels of support, low levels of financial and other insecurities and confidence in her own reproductive abilities.

Artists work within the culture, ideology and institutions within society, and the artists dealing with this subject matter cannot avoid close intertextual responses to or with the medical establishment, such is its hold over childbirth. It is difficult to see if artists are able to undermine  the control of birthing women, and impossible to gauge whether all forms of representing birthing are simply co-opted into the services of a capitalist system which creates or manipulates critiques of its methods simply to enable demand-led modification, rather than radical change.
Karen Newman underlines this difficulty : ‘the human body as object of scientific [and artistic] study is [...] always already a cultural object invested with meaning’, continuing ‘perhaps no flesh is more overdetermined with cultural meaning than the female reproductive body. [...]  Visual modes of representing obstetric and embryological information, which have [...] consequences in forming both public and professional opinion [have a] long and persistent history [in] the social work of consensus building that these representations achieve’.24
The images I have made so far now feel like test shots, preliminary works in an as-yet incomplete process. Through researching this essay I have a greater understanding of how they operate, what they communicate, and why for me they fail. Photography concentrates attention on the moment, the visual climax or spectacle of birth not the cyclical repetitive process of birthing, the ordinariness which I hope to emphasise. The controversy and negative attention which other artists’ work has attracted is a major concern. Photography of birthing women which promotes their agency tends also to explicitly reveal their identities. As a sensationalist approach is not one I favour, and as I need to protect the interests of the women who may have been comfortable with my presence at their birthing, and with my photographing, but would not welcome intrusive attention resulting from an ill-received exhibition, the context in which these images are viewed is critical. These considerations will determine how this project will continue, if indeed it does.
 Representations of pathologised deliveries are countered by those of natural childbirth, but with their competing political ideologies and vested economic interests, how does an art practice avoid simply preaching the new orthodoxy? (How) Can an artistic practice intervene in entrenched discursive and representational regimes? (How) Can an artist use the privileged position of art to expose, retell, or simply reflect social and political issues without being press ganged into their services?
Where, however, women accept without question or critique dominant evaluation of their creative and recreative powers they are guilty of what Mary O’Brien terms ‘bad faith’ where ‘bad faith is the inactivity involved in the refusal to ‘make oneself’ freely and responsibly, preferring the passive acceptance of the definitions of one’s reality proposed by others.’25 Although artists may not successfully challenge biopolitical, patriarchal and capitalist appropriations of birthing, the attempt is of itself an avoidance of bad faith. If artwork dealing with representations of the mother in her moment of so-becoming achieves nothing else, reactions to it serve to make explicit the difficulty society still has with the maternal body.

  1. Adrienne Rich, Of Woman Born (New York, NY: Norton, 1986), p. 129.
  2. Typing ‘childbirth’ into the Wellcome Collection database produces 416 results but only a handful of these actually are of childbirth. [accessed 09 January 2010]
  3. Lorna Davies, ‘The Last Taboo’, in The Art And Soul Of Midwifery, ed. by Lorna Davies (Philadelphia, PA: Churchill Livingstone Elsevier, 2007), pp. 9-29 (p. 20).
  4. William Hunter, Anatomia Uteri Humani Gravidi Tabulis Illustrata (Birmingham: John Baskerville, 1774), 2nd page of unnumbered preface.
  5. Ludmilla Jordanova, Nature Displayed Gender Science and Medicine 1760-1820 (Harlow: Addison Wesley Longman, 1999), p. 185
  6. Henry Kramer and James Sprenger, Malleus Malificarum, trans. by Rev. Montague Summers, 1928 translation of circa 1489 text (London: Hogarth Press, 1969) p.140
  7. Adrienne Rich, Of Woman Born (New York, NY: Norton, 1986), p. 135.
  8. Ibid. P. 138.
  9. Association of Radical Midwives, Super-Vision (Hale: Books For Midwives Press, 1995), p. 4.
  10. Odent later banned cameras declaring we must learn to eliminate all the onlookers and their different ways of observing’. Michel Odent, The Nature of Birth and Breastfeeding (Westport, CT: Bergin and Garvey, 1992), p. 97.
  11. Narrator in Birth Reborn, 40 Minutes Series, Dir. Ann Paul, BBC. 1982
  12. Ibid.
  13. Dawn Gets A Baby, Dir. Dan Child, BBC Three. 2007
  14. An online review for Understanding Childbirth one of the many educational DVDs aimed at pregnant women comments ‘you are told what is mechanically happening to your body [...] There are no real birth shots’ -Parsons/dp/B0002T [accessed 28 December 2009]
  15. Dawn Gets A Baby.
  16. Ibid.
  17. Ibid.
  18. National Media Museum website http:/ [accessed 04 January 2010]
  19. Phyllis L. Brodsky, The Control of Childbirth Women Versus Medicine Through the Ages  (Jefferson, NC: McFarlane and Company, 2008), p. 38.
  20. Interview [accessed 01 October 2009]
  21. ‘A Shared Experience’ catalogue foreword by Ghislaine Howard  [accessed 28 December 2009]
  22. Julia Kristeva, ‘Stabat Mater’, Poetics Today, Vol. 6, No.1/2, The Female Body in Western Culture: Semiotic Perspectives (1985), pp. 133-152, p. 133 [accessed 28 December 2009]
  23. Ibid. p.133.
  24. Karen Newman Fetal Positions Individualism, Science, Visuality (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1996), pp. 4-5.
  25. Mary O’Brien, The Politics of Reproduction (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1981), p. 67.

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