Tell us about yourself
I’m documentary family photographer and birth doula, and after living in various countries around the world, decided to settle in Nottinghamshire. When I am not photographing families or attending births, I’m usually found reading books to my four children or chasing my dogs around where we live after they’ve escaped over the fields behind our home for the umpteenth time.
You can follow Sarah’s work on her website at www.sacredbeginnings.co.uk or on Instagram @sarah_marsden_photography.
We’d love to talk to you about birth photography. As a genre, birth photography is a natural fit for the documentary way of shooting, but it’s still new in the UK, there aren’t many photographers working in the field. Tell us a little about how you came to be a birth photographer.
My family have always been big on photographing everything, and as a child I loved poring over albums and especially loved the images of me when I was a little baby.
Before having any of my own children I was already drawn to the path of birth work and was working on skills in the area of infertility.
My desire to become a birth photographer began to germinate after the birth of my eldest. I have one or two very poor quality blurry point and shoot photos from after her birth, and I’ve always craved more. It was quite a dramatic (also traumatic) experience and I wanted something, some tangible evidence of connection and love to help me process the entire pregnancy, birth and postpartum. Taking terrible photos was my cathartic way of getting through the postpartum period.
Fast forward to when my second daughter was born and I began to see birth photography (especially Monet Nicole’s) pop up across facebook. I searched everywhere here in the UK and I found one person offering such a service many hours away from me. I asked my husband to take photos during and after the birth and again the images were not great (he’s aware that I’ve written this!) and missing moments I wanted.
This was the impetus in setting myself the goal to become a birth photographer. I got myself one of many DSLR cameras, began learning everything I could about light, photography, had a lot of in person mentoring, took many a creative live class on documentary photography as well and knew that this was something I wanted to do; that I wouldn’t be alone in the world in wanting to see the story of my babies’ births unfold and see the connections and emotion involved.
I became a doula alongside other birth work before I began officially offering photography to clients.
You are both a doula and a birth photographer. How do you think your doula training helps your work as a photographer? From a commercial perspective do you think it helps you to attract clients by offering both services?
Yes I am a doula alongside my family photography. My doula training is fundamental to my work as a birth photographer as it aids me in gauging when I am needed, and helps me to read the room when I arrive at a birth. Being a doula influences how I go about photographing births as well to ensure that I am not hindering the birth hormones. I believe it does help being able to offer both skill sets for families and for me too, as we will have already built up a good relationship and trust with each other beforehand through doula meetings and if they want an advocate on the day then I am able to step into that role as well.
It must be magical to witness a birth, but as a photographer the conditions must often be far from ideal. Tell us about some of the challenges you face and how you deal with them.
Lighting is always a challenge for us documentary photographers, and it becomes even more of a challenge in the birthing environment. This is something that needs to be discussed ahead of time as often people giving birth like a very dark space, so managing expectations around the abilities of our gear in a very dark space and whether or not they may want an additional light source such as flash etc is a must.
I think another challenge for birth photographers is knowing when to hold back/give the birthing person some space. This is when the ability to read the room becomes important.
One of the problems with birth photography must be the unpredictability of timing. It must be especially difficult as a busy mum juggling 4 kids of your own! How do you manage your diary to factor in the uncertainty of arrival dates?
Births are very unpredictable, you’re right! Most personal plans are usually made with a caveat that I made need to cancel at short notice if a client calls. If we are going slightly further from home than normal, we often take two cars so that I can leave if required without disrupting the rest of the family. If I have other clients booked in for client meetings, then I do warn them when I am on call that I may need to rearrange. For the majority of the time, nothing clashes, but I have had to rearrange a few client meetings to attend births, had clients go into labour just after finishing day in the life sessions and also missed family birthdays.
Do you find that most of your clients opt for home births, or do you also attend hospital births? How are you received by hospital staff?
I would say it’s about 50/50 home to hospital births. In hospital, I am usually there in the role of both doula and photographer. I have been in various hospitals both locally and further afield, and the vast majority of experiences have been nothing but positive. There are fantastic midwives out there, and I really enjoy working alongside them.
Please share an image from a birth that you are particularly proud of, tell us a bit about the story behind it and how you captured it.
This image of mother and daughter in the birth pool is one of my favourites. Not only has it won a few awards, but I just found the moment equal parts endearing and humorous. Older siblings bring their own special dynamic to home births and in this instance, big sis wanted in to practice her swimming skills. I found it funny that both were focusing on their breathing; one to be able to float and one to breathe away surges. I took this image from an overhead angle near the side of the pool.
What advice would you give to anyone that is interested in adding birth photography to their business?
My biggest piece of advice would be to enrol on a doula course first before attending births. Even if you don’t ever intend to practice as a doula, it will give you invaluable skills and help you to ensure that you are doing your part on the birth team to aid physiological labour.
Another piece of advice is to charge your worth. Birth work is intense work physically, mentally and emotionally and it can often mean long hours and lack of sleep. On top of all that you need to make yourself available to drop everything at a moment’s notice to attend a birth, even if that means missing out on your own family’s special moments.
If you have children, then getting a good childcare system in place is also key.
But mostly, if you decide to follow this path, relish the opportunity of being invited into someone’s sacred space to witness the miracle of birth and capture this incredible, life altering event. No two births are ever the same and each one leaves a forever imprint on your heart.
About Alumni Spotlight
Alumni Spotlight is an interview series showcasing documentary family photographers who have completed a mentoring programme with Made for Documentary. Our students talk about what makes them tick, showcase their favourite images and share advice for those wanting to dive into the world of documentary family photography.
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