Birth + Photography Are Not A Competition

I am not a competition photographer. Don’t get me wrong, I used to be. I love the technical aspects of photography. The rules, composition, settings, critiques, winning, and not winning. There is, in all honestly, a lot one can gain with the right mindset. However in the realm of birth photography, I struggle with the idea of competition and comparison.

I want to be clear, these opinions are my own. I am not speaking for an organization or against another organization. I am not a lawyer or mental health professional either. I am a mother, who talks with other mothers and fathers about birth and parenthood. These are my thoughts.

No matter how progressive the mission, rules, and requirements, competition is something I could, quite frankly, live without. Sure competition happens naturally. In motherhood, in business - life - but why seek it out? In today’s world consumers are incredibly smart, perceptive, and are just as tired of seeing competition and overt marketing as we, the business owner and artists are creating it. Further, there is no such thing as a “mother of the year award,” unless you use it as an internet hashtag or are living it up on mother/father’s day. So why are we using competitions in the photography world that depict parenthood and birth?

I know, I know. We are “being judged on technical skills.” Are we though? Not all competitions are juried and those that are often see so many images that feedback may be sparse or only offered to a select few. Image competitions, rules and feedback aside, are to find a winner. A “winner” whose image is then the face of that category or that genre until there is another competition that comes around the corner. Is this what we want? As a birth photographer or a parent? Do we want to elevate a single image, or short series of images from different artists, that is then going to be the face of birth? The face of parenthood? The most sought after frames to be shared across the world, and then some, in small and large media outlets? Is this the narrative that is really going to help the birth and motherhood community?

I know many artists say they enter competitions to for the normalization of birth. I’m here to say that we, birth photographers, parents, the world, do not need a competition to normalize birth! We need birth stories to be told and shared. We, collectively as part of the larger birth industry, are making great progress with our daily posts, conversations, and in our direct communities as we connect with real people. There are just as many women and partners who don’t choose birth photography and don’t choose a home birth because of the images we share.

Competition and the sharing of our images serves to both glorify and silence. Attract and repel people, families, and cultures.

What we share and what we choose to focus on in our portfolios, social media, and ultimately what we often see entered into competitions often depicts a slim margin of normal. This narrow view often omits the boring, tough, or “dirty” moments. When an expecting mother views a single frame or reads our captions, the best of birth is amplified. Leaving them wondering when they experience the harder parts or a variation, is this “normal.” Sure we show new and different birth positions, we even offer new and different perspectives. Sure families write birth plans. I understand we can’t be held entirely responsible for unmet expectations, I get that. We are, however, responsible for the shared history we are providing the world with our work.

As birth photographers it is not our duty to empower women. It IS our duty to show women how powerful they are!

To be clear:

No matter where you stand after reading everything so far I want clarify a couple of things:

  • A birth photographer does not have to be an advocate to normalize birth. It is more than acceptable to want to show and share birth photography with the family who has invited you into their space. Full stop.

  • Perspective and intent is everything! I want to encourage every artist to be clear on their mission, core values, and who you want to serve with your craft. 

  • You do not have to compete to succeed in business. You don’t even have to have a social media presence to be successful in business. You do however have to connect and serve people local to you for success.

  • I’m not here to police you, rather to ask you to think past likes and follows, forget your bottom line even, and feel the gravity that birth is the family's story, the mother’s story, first and always.

So what now?

Before entering your work into any competition ask yourself what you hope to gain. Does this gain serve your mission statement? Does it serve your core values? Does it serve your ideal client? Does it serve you?

If you are entering into a competition because you want/need feedback on an image, I encourage you to share your work in any of the birth or documentary groups. Ask for true constructive critiques without placing a bias in your post. What do I mean, “without placing bias?” Do not ask for a critique by belittling yourself or comparing yourself to others. It is hard at times as artists, and as most of us are women, we have been taught and conditioned to not believe in ourselves. Instead, consider asking for what you want specifically. Do you want feedback regarding the emotion? Technical aspects? Or do you want a full critique? Be open to harsh and gentle critique. The goal is to get better, without competition, and in full collaboration of those who have come before us.

Feeling uncomfortable asking for critiques in a group? Or do you want more individualized attention? Seek out someone whom you follow and look up to for a portfolio critique. More often than not, if someone offers mentoring, they offer portfolio critiques. All you have to do is ask! As storyteller photographers, which most of us are in the birth and documentary world, it behooves us to have a story line critiqued rather than a single frame. Having images pulled from multiple births also provides a viewer to find consistencies, or lack thereof, in editing, style, and technical strengths or weaknesses. Portfolio critiques further allow you to discuss an image in greater detail. What was going on, the challenges you faced, how you might approach the situation differently, and then you get to be quiet and gain the wisdom of someone who has been there and done that.

If competitions are your jam and sharing images online is your thing, I encourage you to talk openly about it with your clients. Sure we all have model releases in our contracts, but does your client understand your intent? Are they aware an image can go viral? Communication will always win!  Not to mention clients who emphatically agree with image sharing, which is awesome, may even like taking part in choosing images, naming images, and telling their story. While the images may be ours via copyright, the story itself, is theirs! The future of your business resides in the happiness of the families we serve.

Birth mattersPhotography matters to birth.Good Photography matters to birth photography.Approach matters to good photography.Good Photography matters to birth.-Jenna Shouldice -.jpg