Birth Photographer Mindfulness

"Three rules of work:
out of clutter find simplicity.
From discord find harmony.
In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity.”

Albert Einstein


The world is filled with dialectics. If this is a new word, as it was to me this year, it simply means that there are often two or more ways to view things in life. This Albert Einstein quote displays this flawlessly. What is doesn’t display is how hard it can be to be aware of more than one side when we are in the midst of high emotions, opinionated thinking, or kind of stuck in our ways. Some call this black and white thinking. Where we a doggedly determined to see and believe only one right and one wrong. I don’t know about you but I have learned that life just plain isn’t this way, especially in the realm of birth. Sure, more often than not there is labor and there is delivery. However, the methods, means, locations, providers and ultimately the stories are all different.

Being open to these differences is the beginning of mindfulness. I’ll get into this more through this article. Now that I explained briefly what dialectics are, and before I go further, I want to bring to light a dialect that motives our thoughts and actions. We each possess a reasonable mind and an emotional mind, the center being wise mind. This is something I am learning from Marsha Linehan’s teaching in dialectic behavior. I promise this is not “woo-woo.” Well it might be a little bit, but for good reason. Wise mind is ultimately where we must stand as professional birth photographers, more so than any other genre.

 Excerpt from  Marsha Linehan’s workbook,  DBT Skills Training

Excerpt from Marsha Linehan’s workbook, DBT Skills Training

If you’re a birth photographer, please keep reading.

Most birth photographers, myself included, are in this profession because we believe in birth. We are an advocate of the process, of the people, and want everyone to have options and education. Which means most of us are also educated in the process of birth. This is great. This shows passion for our work. Knowledge and advocacy is often an integral part in our why behind our business. It’s why and how we can leave our families any time of night or in the middle of that birthday-dance recital-graduation event.

Motivation and passion aside, I am a staunch believer in we must drop the advocacy lens (no pun intended) when we walk into the birth space. We are not an advocate while we are present for our clients, as a photographer. This can be insanely hard! Not only do we have to halt advocacy externally, but it is necessary to halt advocacy internally as well.  If we don’t separate ourselves from the events we are documenting, our perspective (we’re the one with the camera) will be radically colored by how ever life unfolds. Let me explain.

Very simply, our brains, thoughts, and actions (past and present) affect our perspective, how we document, and even what we document. This can be both good and bad. Remember that chart from above. If we live in an emotional state, where are feeling of events become fact, can you imagine how your creativity may change? You may not get as close to your clients. You may create obstacles like keeping things in between you and your clients. You may also get stuck in one area of a room as your curiosity shuts down. Has this ever happened to you? For a few minutes? Maybe an entire birth session? Maybe you didn’t notice until you got home and began looking through your images. I have been here! I have also seen this in other’s portfolios.

On the opposite side if we live in a rational state, where logic and rules run our mind we may lose the story line or miss a shot. I have been here as well. Where I get stuck in my head about the rules of photography, and anticipating the physiological process of birth I miss emotional elements. Again, this might happen for a few minutes, the entire birth, and we might not ever notice it.

Now I want to point out a very important point. There is nothing wrong with being overly rational or overly emotional at any given moment. There are very real scenarios where one side must be dominant for our survival. However, I truly believe that when we are documenting or telling someone else’s story, our goal would be best lived in the center, wise mind.  I’m not going to lie, “wise mind” sounds pretentious. It doesn’t have to be! This is simply a place of awareness. This is where we are open to feeling our feelings and those around us (empathy), as well a being mindful of rules, processes, and all the technicalities that we must be aware of while in any given birth space. This centered place, the balance, is where we accomplish life and work.

Want real life scenarios of this in action?

Into the birth space, with camera in hand: I walk in with all of my knowledge and specific viewpoints on people and potential interventions. I’m an empath as most of us photographers are, so I can very easily get caught in my emotions AND the emotions of everyone in the room. I am finding it incredibly easy to get worried about how everything is progressing (or not). Keep in mind this can start before we even enter the room. Maybe our kid was sick at home, or the dog pooped on the floor just as you were leaving, or you had trouble finding parking after sitting in unexpected traffic. Now I’m listening to how a nurse says something or what options were given (or not). I’m somehow getting more upset than my client that the birth plan isn’t going according to plan, so I begin to miss shots. Perfection sets in. Perfection for  the birth plan, perfection for capturing the moment just so, where to stand, over anticipating, and just plain over thinking and emotionally involved in every detail.

Remember, none of this is because I’m a bad photographer or because I don’t understand the physiological process of birth. Rather it is because I have my beliefs and views on how birth should go, my preconceived advocacy and researched knowledge, and I’m letting those thoughts fill me with emotion that is distracting me from doing my job. Which is to document my client’s birth story.

Further the more we get into this emotional state, without pulling ourselves back we can very much create an unsafe environment. We may stop being aware of our surrounds, stop anticipating movement in the room. All of which may lead to poor etiquette in front of providers and our clients. Being unaware of your surroundings means you might bump the sterile field, not anticipate your environment, etc. It can even be a bad decision like grabbing a chair to stand on or getting in the way of the medical staff.

Have you been in the head space? I know I have! Did you notice it as it was happening? After you got home? Are you just now thinking of your body of work and how this may have an effect?

I hope I can help you in this article just as much as I have brought this concept to your attention. I’m doing my best to be transparent with you. It is not easy to be in wise mind, or pull yourself out of a spiral of thoughts in the moment. My goal is to have you reflect and grow. I can look back at my work and see it very clearly where my judgements, perfectionism, and “shoulds” got in the way of me getting closer, stepping back, and capturing the in between moments because I was so stuck on what was happening to someone else. Events that I in all reality, I can’t control. Wise mind tells me that I can’t control my client’s situation. Wise mind also tells me that I was paid to do a job and do it well. To be present and aware, but to focus on the connection through each decision and moment within the birth space.

How do you do this? How do you create white space, openness, mindfulness to help center yourself during times of stress?

I’ve recently begun employing mindfulness tools in my everyday life and found it extremely helpful at my last couple of births. The first and best option, if your situation will allow it, is to give yourself a break outside of the room. If the pace of the birth allows, it is more than okay to spend a few minutes in the waiting room. Go to the bathroom. Fill up your water bottle. Giving yourself physical distance can be enough to bring you to center.

The next best technique is learning to control my breathing. The in and the out breaths, when under pressure we typically breath fast and our thoughts move through our consciousness fast as well. When we can control our breath and even recall a few mantras, we can center our being and get back to our art. The best part is know one has to know what you are doing! After all, we all breathe, right?! Here are some of the things I have told myself in the birth space:

Inhale: You are here to observe. Exhale: Relax/You got this
Inhale: You were paid for a service. Exhale: Shoot with intention
Inhale: This is not my story. Exhale: I am the storyteller
Inhale: Their emotions  Exhale: are not my emotions

Do you have any mantras or sayings when emotions get high while you work? Do you find you revisit the emotions again while you edit? Use the same mantras, talk a walk. If you continue to have trouble, struggle to center yourself before, during or after a birth, I encourage you to find a trusted peer to discuss your experiences with. Everything I have said is great to practice and do, but at times we need additional help. So while you practice mantras and breathing in your everyday life also create a list of people you can reach out to when you need additional assistance (fellow birth photographer, doula, best friend, etc.).

Last, but not least.

I want to be very clear. You are allowed to have your values. You are allowed to have opinions. You are allowed to feel and have emotions. I am not telling anyone to stop any of this! I’m simply pointing out that if we let our mind take over, if we get stuck in advocacy, we will get lost, forget, or poorly document all the life happening in front of  us. I promise you, having been there, you are not serving from a balanced place. There are times I want to hold hands, dole out hugs, and even feel like I’m intruding with each shutter release, this is normal and at times expected. I am asking you to be aware of all of this and how it changes your perspective in your storytelling of another families life. Above all else, don’t let your judgement or emotions rob you of the artistry you are known for.