Terra Hall never saw herself becoming a mother. But when the ambulance delivered her to Centinela Hospital Medical Center in Inglewood, writhing in pain at 9 centimeters dilated, her first thought — after getting an epidural — was how she would record it.
“I don’t care what faces I’m making, I don’t care if it’s disgusting — I wanted photos of everything,” said Hall, 35, a media advocacy manager for the American Heart Assn. “I was kind of disappointed when I thought none of this is going to be documented.”
The market for raw, uncensored images of childbirth has surged in recent years, spilling from niche to mainstream thanks to platforms like Instagram. Now, more and more millennial parents like Hall are paying professionals to capture them.
“When we were discussing doing maternity photos, I was initially really against it,” Hall said. “I think it’s really cheesy, a woman standing in a field with a flowing dress and a crown of flowers. I wanted something grittier than that.”
In Los Angeles alone, dozens of professional photographers now make their living in the delivery room — and, increasingly, in the OR — documenting the first moments of motherhood for clients who pay thousands of dollars for wedding-style albums of their labor.
“It’s not just the moment of the baby coming out,” said photographer Stephanie Entin, who shot the birth of Hall’s son Lenox in March. “It’s telling the whole entire story of the day the baby was born.”
Services like Entin’s are expensive: Birth photographers charge anywhere from $1,500 to more than $4,000, well out of reach for many new parents. But the practice is so popular at Westside hospitals like Cedars-Sinai, UCLA and St. John’s that some providers carry photographers’ business cards in their exam rooms. To Angelenos who can afford one, a birth photographer is as de rigueur as a doula.
“There used to be just two of us in L.A., and now there’s 30 to 40 of us,” said birth photographer Briana Kalajain. “When you’re choosing your doctor, in the same breath is who is going to be your support person and who’s going to photograph.”
Nor is the service exclusive to so-called natural birth. Some hire professionals to shoot their scheduled C-sections. Others, like Hall, write their photographer into a birth plan that includes “all of the drugs.”
“However my client wants to birth is how I go,” said Natalia Walth, a photographer and videographer whose work has helped define the industry. “To me, being in the OR is more important than being [at] a vaginal birth, because the mothers are drugged, they may not be fully conscious of what’s happening to them. Having those photographs allows them to process their birth.”
Walth said her clients wanted their birth shot for the same reason most people hire a professional to capture their wedding.
“We’re just as important as a wedding photographer — the only difference between a wedding and a birth is we have a medical team,” she said.
But not everyone is so sanguine about the business of birthing on camera. Obstetricians are sued more often than any other physicians, and the indemnities against them can be astronomical. To some, a lens can feel like a threat.
“Birth isn’t very beautiful,” said Mike Matray, who edits the Medical Liability Monitor. “It’s bloody, it’s chaotic — what’s captured on the videotape may not even be that out of the ordinary, but simply because it’s bloody, it looks extreme.”
Indeed, the images themselves can be arresting: #birthfilm is not a hashtag to stumble on by accident, and no person in possession of a birth canal can watch a baby crown without wincing.
But as Americans have fewer babies, childbirth is increasingly a once-in-a-lifetime experience. This is particularly true for those who can best afford a photographer, said Caroline Hartnett, a sociologist with the University of South Carolina. While the average age of first birth has increased for all women, wealthy ones wait longer to become mothers and have more disposable income when they do.
Widening inequality plays another role too. Birth photography is a boast for families of means — but increasingly, so are the births in the photos.
“Now, having a planned birth in a stable marriage is much more common among high socioeconomic status” than in poor families, Hartnett said. “What’s being projected in wedding photography and birth photography is an achievement that is not accessible to everyone.”
Others say the photos play a leveling role. A baby comes into the world in one of two ways, both of which are physically arduous. For those who have done it, the work of labor is as close as exists to a universal experience.
“Once you’ve given birth, you know,” Walth said. “I’m not there to photograph crowning shots. I’m there to see your mother look into your eyes like, you get it now.”
Even the crowning shot isn’t as extreme as it might look at first. It’s common for laboring mothers to be offered a mirror so they can watch as their babies emerge. Many find they push more effectively once they’ve seen how their bodies work.
“People see those images and think, if I can do that, I can do anything,” said Katie Vigos, whose Empowered Birth Project successfully lobbied Instagram to allow crowning shots. “I can’t even count the thousands and thousands of comments of people saying these photos have helped me prepare so much for what I’m about to do.”
Not all photographers like to shoot the birth moment, and not all hospitals allow them to. Neither UCLA, Cedars-Sinai nor St. John’s would elaborate on specific policies, such as whether they allowed photographers in the operating room or which procedures they were permitted to film.
But nurse midwife Shadman Habibi of UCLA’s Santa Monica practice said anyone who works in maternity on the Westside has likely grown used to cameras in their midst.
“They’re welcome in labor and delivery — we love to have them,” she said. “We know if we shut out professional photographers, people will stop coming to us.”
Photographers too say they’re largely embraced.
“On the Westside the hospitals are very good, they’re very open-minded,” said birth photographer Diana Hinek, whose card can be found in exam rooms at UCLA.
Still, the agreements are largely unspoken, and birth photographers described contradictory policies that seemed to shift with the doctor or the day.
“I always tell a client, if you’re agreeing to give birth in a hospital, you’re kind of at their mercy,” Hinek said.
There is no certification for birth photographers as there is for doulas, and some said brisk business in L.A. has drawn newcomers who don’t always play by the rules. The vast majority of established birth photographers are young mothers themselves, who struggle to balance their own growing families with the demands of a competitive and physically grueling job.
“There’s lot of burnout,” Walth said. “Photographers realize, I have to be here all night, I have babies, I can’t do it.”
What keeps them going, photographers say, are mothers like Hall, who cherish their work.
“I never wanted to be a mom, but seeing my day captured, beginning to end, it made me really proud,” the new mother said. “I gave birth to a person who is so fabulous and so wonderful, and I love getting to look at the photos and thinking, I did that.”