At a client meeting recently, I was asked what I am looking for when I shoot a birth. It wasn’t something I’d ever put into words before, and I don’t even remember what answer I stammered out in the moment. I thought about it the whole way home, though, and I’m so glad she asked because now I have an answer. This is an important question, I think, because people hear “birth photography” and they think “photographer standing between mom’s legs and taking crowning shots.” Actually, I won’t take a crowning shot unless specifically requested.

So what pictures do I take – what do I look for?

I look for strength. The strength of a mama as she does the work of labor to bring her baby into the world. The strength to keep going when you don’t even really know what that means. The strength of dad and husband as he holds her, massages her back, provides counterpressure continually for hours. The strength to stay up all night, or even longer. The no-going-back strength of a fierce mama bear.

I look for love. There is something amazing that happens during labor between mom and dad. Their love created this baby, and the moment of birth deepens that same connection. I look for the embrace, the intimacy, the look in dad’s eyes as he sees his beloved in a way he has never seen her before. After baby has made her way earthside, I look for the first gaze of love between baby and mama – the “so that’s what you look like” moment. I look for the tenderness of a new dad, holding his baby in that not-quite-sure-how-to-do-it/am-I-going-to-break-him sort of way.

I look for determination. I look for the moment when the work is hard, and mom wants to flee, to go anywhere but here, but she keeps going. She is determined. She will walk, climb stairs, get on her hands and knees, flat out do anything to help her baby be born. The look of determination on her face is unmatched by any other event in her life.

I look for power. I look for the moment – near the end – when mom thinks “I can’t do this anymore.” And then she goes and does it anyway. There is a moment in giving birth where we as women discover our innate power, power that we carry with us always but aren’t necessarily aware of it. From the time I step into a birthing space until I go home, I am looking for that moment. The moment a woman becomes most fully herself :: the strong, determined, powerful woman bringing a baby earthside.

I look for joy. The moment a baby arrives is, for many parents, the happiest and most joyous moment of their lives. I look to capture that moment, the complete joy and adoration and “we did it!” that follows the hard work and doubt and uncertainty.

I look for beauty. All these things – strength, determination, love, power, joy – together they equal beauty. I’ve heard it said that there’s no such thing as a bride who isn’t beautiful on her wedding day. Well, I believe there is no such thing as a woman giving birth who isn’t beautiful. Sure, she might not have make-up on or perfectly coiffed hair, but as she digs deep into her inner strength she is beautiful. As she grits her teeth in determination she is beautiful. As she discovers her true, powerful self she is beautiful.

Those are the things I look for. I don’t have a “shot list.” The caricature of birth that Hollywood has given us in movies and TV shows would have us believe that birth is gross, a medical condition from which a woman needs to be rescued. This is so far from the reality and that is why I am passionate about telling birth stories: to present a different reality, a series of vivid and evocative images that tells the true story of birth.