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Verve People
October 01, 2020

India’s First Birth Photographer Gets Back To Work

We check in with Urshita Saini as her Delhi-based business, Momma Story, resumes operations and adapts to the changes in the field brought on by the pandemic

What drew you to birth photography?
It was the fact that such a life-changing moment was not being properly captured in India. Despite living in the second-most populated country, we aren’t able to see what birth really means. And with all the birth pictures taken around the world, it was sad to not come across Indian artists behind any of them – this really made me think hard and got me excited about this field.

Did you have any fears before getting started?
Honestly, fainting – but more than that it was the overwhelming thought of entering the most sacred and medically sensitive part of a hospital; the LDR [labour, delivery and recovery room] or OT [operation theatre]. And I also had a slight fear about whether birth photography would really be possible here, if no one had done this before in India!

Is there a significant difference between how men and women react to the concept of birth photography?
It’s always a mixed bag. There are times when the expectant mother is so scared of giving birth that the idea of birth photography is too overwhelming for her, but the father is able to see beyond that fear. At other times, it’s the father who refuses to entertain this request for a non-medical service, largely due to finances. But overall, women tend to be little more emotionally inclined towards birth photography than men.

Have you worked with any non-traditional families? Could you tell us more about that?
We have worked with single mothers, and trust me, I have never seen a stronger set of women in my life. We have also had a couple who were in an inter-religious marriage, where both families were not involved with them, but they still had an amazing journey. They were some of our best clients.

What kind of images do to-be parents mainly request? Do you find that they are looking to romanticise/sanitise the experience of childbirth, or are they open to documenting the process in a more raw manner?
Different couples come with different ideas of what birth and birth photography are. Some just want to capture the emotions of themselves and their families, and some are looking for pictures of only the baby. On the other hand, there are parents who want everything as it is: raw and real. We’ve had requests for crowning shots, which we do with the doctor’s and client’s consent. We’ve seen more people who are open to us taking colour photographs of birth. Generally, birth photography is about black-and-white pictures to hide anything that might be disturbing for some people. And sometimes we do get requests to not click anything that might not be considered traditionally aesthetic. But then, a few clients actually want pictures of the placenta too!

Could you share the most challenging shoot you have done so far? 
The most challenging shoot I’ve done was my first water birth. This was with a couple that was really connected with their bodies and the baby. You could feel how the mother was completely in sync with her baby while she was in labour. It was so amazing to see her talk to her baby though each contraction. Capturing those raw emotions as genuinely as possible was the real challenge. But as a photographer, I loved every part of that shoot. The waiting, the water, the emotions, the helpful hands of her midwife, her husband gently holding her and comforting her, the bhajans that she played in the background. That, in my experience has also been the purest birth story I ever photographed.

How has the pandemic affected your business?
It was as if we had to start from scratch. The hospital and doctor partners that we had developed over the past three years suddenly refused to let us provide these services owing to COVID-19, and their concerns were completely valid. Our business went down to zero during the lockdown. But around a month after it was lifted, we were able to rejoin with almost all the partners in about 15 days, and we are now back to 80 per cent of our full-scale operations.

Based on your experience so far, what are the noticeable emotional changes in mothers who have gone through pregnancy and birth during this time of crisis? How has Momma Story adapted to their needs?
The first emotional change was the lack of family members in the hospital. As per the recent protocol, only one attendant is allowed in the delivery room. Family is an integral part of the parents’ joy post-delivery; but because we know they cannot be present anymore, our team makes additional efforts to celebrate with the couple and create an environment of comfort and happiness.  The second is the constant, looming fear for the baby’s safety due to the pandemic.

Tell us more about your team
We have an all-women birth photography team that is holistically trained in the medical nuances of childbirth. I am a certified doula as well, and that gives us an edge because we now understand the birthing process from a whole new standpoint. And Ria Mukherjee, our new star photographer, has doubled up as a trainer so that we can expand our services in NCR, Chandigarh and Mumbai. We have recently trained three additional birth photographers, who are ready to hit the ground, and hopefully, we will soon be able to transform this concept into a large-scale venture.

Birth photography always requires careful attention to safety and hygiene, but what extra measures have you taken to ensure this currently?
We have tried to restrict the movements of the team so that there is less exposure to the outside world and thus lower chances of catching the virus. Needless to say, we are always in masks and gloves and have sanitising agents handy. For further safety, we also undergo regular COVID testing to prevent ourselves from becoming inadvertent carriers.

No matter how much you plan, a job like this must entail last-minute changes/surprises, especially in the present circumstances. How do you stay prepared?
A pandemic does not really give you any time to prepare. The world is changing by the minute, and sometimes, it becomes difficult to keep up with it. The cases here are rising exponentially, and we have faced instances of delayed COVID test reports, forcing us to let go of some shoots as a result. Our internal protocols have become even more stringent because this is now required to ensure the safety of both the mother and the baby.

Has a client ever changed their mind at the 11th hour?
Not really. Once a client decides, they never refuse. In fact, we have seen them becoming more excited as they get closer to their delivery date.

Being present while someone is giving birth can be an intense experience. How does this job affect you mentally? Particularly while you’re grappling with the effects of a lockdown yourself?
It has been, and will always be a very stressful job. It’s even tougher right now since my playground is the hospital, which is the last place anyone would want to be in during a pandemic. But it’s not just the pressure of the client and the hospital; there is also a certain level of stress in my own family whenever I am out for a shoot. Plus, I have two nieces back home, and it is a sad feeling to not be able to hold them after I come back from a shoot.

You and your team are available 24/7. How does this affect the work-life balance?
Being available 24/7 is certainly challenging. In the beginning, it took a toll on my personal life; however, over the last three years we had been managing our logistics in a way that maintained not just mine, but my entire team’s work-life balance. While our operations have been squarely hit thanks to the additional protocols we’ve had to define internally, we are aiming to get as close to normalcy in about a quarter.

What is the one personal quality you’ve had to work on as you’ve gone through this journey?
Patience. Developing infinite patience.

Any tips for someone who is thinking of getting into this profession?
Birth photography lets you witness things that not everyone in the world will be able to experience. But the field is at a really nascent stage in India; entering it requires you to be extremely patient and thick-skinned and to have the attitude to work 24/7. It also requires you to be ready to put a full stop on your personal life at the snap of a finger. If you are able to pull this off, there will never be a better feeling. But, I would not suggest getting into this profession alone. Always find a guide or mentor first. Birth photography takes a toll on your mental health, and having a mentor around will make your journey a little easier.

Momma Story is a joint venture between ClickMeMom, Inflens and First Delight. They arrange maternity, hospital and newborn photoshoots as well as 2D and 3D casting services. Read more about them here.

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