What is birth?
Is it a medical procedure with all the associated risks? Is it a spiritual experience? Or is it just a normal biological process?
How does tradition determine what birth means? What role do doctors and midwives and institutions play?
I’ve used my camera to look for answers to these questions in hospital rooms, birthing centers, clinics and people’s homes.
I started in 2006, taking a series of photos of Juan Pablo Pina hospital, an underserved public facility in San Cristóbal, Dominican Republic. What was intended to be just a photo story about a public health failure became a long-term personal project about the nature of birth itself. Over the next eight years, I photographed women giving birth in a Doctors Without Borders clinic in Nigeria, a midwifery school in Mexico, a midwifery-based maternity ward in Massachusetts and a birthing center in Florida.
My work has shown me a range of birthing approaches and circumstances, each sharing a similar outcome but distinguished by mothers, caregivers and culture.
Like death, the subject of birth is often proscribed, and the United States, where I live, has few rituals that would allow us to contextualize and understand the process. In the past, most women in the western world would have seen someone give birth before having a child of her own, but now many of us do not. The less exposure we have to birth, the less we understand it, and the more we tend to medicalize it.
Birth has elements of struggle, strength, transformation and mortality that aren’t visible in most images of women's bodies. Birth looks intense, powerful, uncontrolled - and beautiful.
My role as a photographer gives me permission to be curious and nosy and to witness intimate stories. I’m not a midwife or a doctor or a politician; I leave the work of delivering babies and legislating care to others. But I am able to ask questions and looking at the larger ideas behind birth by photographing. And when it came time for me to give birth to my own children, I was strengthened and sustained by the women I'd seen while making this project. Birth seemed to me incredible, but also normal. I knew that I could do it.
Alice Proujansky is a documentary photographer who covers women: birth, work, motherhood and identity. Her photographs have been published in the New York Times, New York Magazine, the New Republic, The Guardian and others. She has been working on personal projects about Birth Culture since 2006 and Women's Work since 2013.
Her work has been supported by the Magnum Foundation, the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, the Solutions Journalism Network and the Economic Hardship Reporting Project and was selected for Review Santa Fe 2014.
A graduate of New York University, Alice has taught photography to at-risk young people and their teachers since 2002 and now coordinates On Sight, Aperture’s community photography education program.