‘Most people think birth is gross and dangerous. I want to show it’s not something to be afraid of’, photographer Alice Proujansky tells Sarah Phillips in this interview for London’s Guardian.
I took this in a maternity ward in the Dominican Republic that deals with 600 births a month without any hot water. It was 2006, and I was staying with a family I had met nine years previously, when I volunteered in the hospital during a break from high school in Massachusetts.
My interest in photographing birth comes from those volunteering days – but it really started in earnest when I was three years old, standing in the delivery room awaiting the birth of my brother; then again when I was seven, doing the same for my sister. I admire how open my mother was about birth. She even got me a plastic kids’ camera the second time round. I didn’t manage to capture the birth, though – just a wall and some curtains.
When I returned to the hospital, the Juan Pablo Piña in the town of San Cristóbal, they wouldn’t let me in at first. I panicked, thinking I’d gone all that way for nothing, but it turned out the problem was that I wasn’t wearing scrubs. So I got some secondhand. Once I was on the ward, the doctors and midwives were supportive of my project, while the women giving birth wanted their stories to be told.
I don’t know anything about the young woman in this picture, not even her name. She’d had some complications and was lying in pain with her tiny newborn, so it didn’t feel appropriate to talk, other than to ask her permission to take the photograph. I think the composition is beautiful, evocative of the intensity of birth. There is a seriousness to her face – holding my gaze and the gaze of the viewer – that says a lot about the experience she is having. It feels very honest.
Most people think birth is gross and dangerous. I want to show it isn’t something to be afraid of, while highlighting the fact that access to safe birthcare around the world is critically important. Since taking this, I have photographed births in Mexico, Nigeria, the Navajo Nation and Massachusetts, sometimes in quite unsanitary conditions. Most of the time, this involves a lot of fidgeting and sweating in hot hospitals, listening to 10 women say no when you ask if you can take their photograph. I just have to wait patiently and believe in what I’m doing. This shot was successful because I was brave enough to do just that.
Born: Northampton, Massachusetts, 1979.
Studied: New York University.
High point: “Having my birth project published in the New York Times.”
Low point: “Forgetting that the slow times won’t last for ever.”
Top tip: “Allow yourself to come through in your work.”
• Details: aliceproujansky.com
For the original report go to http://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/2013/mar/27/alice-proujansky-best-shot