Birth Undisturbed is my labour of love for five years; my ode to the simple glory of the wild birthing woman, undisturbed amongst varying palettes of chaotic, cinematic disturbed; from Royal to squalid; a palace to the ocean; a stable to a schoolbus.
The series was born from indignation as much as passion. I was called to bring physiological birth into narrative photography in a way I haven’t seen; to throw a pot of maternal gorgeousness over a genre that sidelines birth as a mere footnote.
I took figures like the Queen and Calamity Jane to picture birth in a way mainstream culture has never dared ask for.
I wanted to unleash birth writers such as Michel Odent, Grantly Dick-Read and Ina May Gaskin from their esoteric paradigm and explode them into visual culture for all to see.
I wanted to reframe religion from the holy roots of waterbirth, to a Muslim family in hospital, and most controversially, Virgin Mary crowning Christ.
Deeply seeded from my own experience of motherhood, the series is one elaborate self-portrait through symbols alone. From cord scissors to a Kwik Save bag; the inclusion of my own children, even myself as an onlooker. And critically, my red birth towel in every single scene.
Birth Undisturbed has won two awards and celebrated in 9 others, brought a foray into filmmaking, seen extensive press and uproar, and sold prints across a cross-sectional audience my boldest dreams couldn’t picture, for a series I actually thought could end my career.
But the biggest prize of all, is hearing from birthing women that these images had a positive physical effect on their births, and thus, on their babies, the future of the human race. What bigger honour could there be?
Further background and detail on Birth Undisturbed
Ever since I first began taking photos as a student in 2006, I have been focused on the female form. First this was through the act of self-portraiture, then through fashion models. As the years passed and I became a mother in 2013, I suddenly craved making art that manifested the power and rawness of the ultimate act of femaleness: childbirth.
When I was little, I was curious about childbirth simply because it was never talked about. It was not so much a ‘morbid’ curiosity as for death, but its joyful inverse: the creation of new, bulging pink life. And now having given birth myself, I had seen behind the curtain.
Childbirth, so many contradictions. Such bloodshed we only see otherwise in death or violence. Such sight of nudity and genitalia we only otherwise see in sex or porn. Nowhere else is all this so ‘family safe,’ so connected with joy and normality.
Birth happens thousands of times a day, yet for each woman only a few times if ever, and for each of us just once.
Birth has precipitated centuries of tools, drugs, and philosophies. Or it can need nothing but patience and a dark room. Birth can happen at home as easily as a bowel movement. Or it can be a high-tech, medical, or surgical affair; sometimes a life-threatening day for both woman and child, involving weeks or months in confinement.
During birth, both woman and child are at their most vulnerable, yet strongest.
Birth can be extremely painful, the hardest thing a woman experiences. Or, a woman may not even choose the word ‘pain’ to describe it. More often, it’s an exquisite blend of pain and joy entwined, the work of moving mountains, something unfathomable.
I fantasised about seeing birth in the genre of fictional narrative photography, where we normally see plenty of beautifully deadpan characters hanging around, doing nothing. Could I construct make beautiful art from what someone called the 'disgusting miracle of nature’? Could I bring it into fine-art tableaux, inspired by birth philosophers I'd read through the years and make it look powerful, different, even exciting?
Upon conceiving the series I quickly became focused by the idea of creating images we have never seen, rather than creating a synthetic version of the many real births shared on social media today. I was not interested in fooling people with fake images of birth. I wanted to create realistic but polished scenes, like movie-stills, that were evidently obscure and historic and not to be confused with birth documentary genre. I wanted to picture that which we have lacked the opportunity to witness, either because the nature of the scene is taboo, unusual, or simply obscured by the focus on an overly dramatic or exclusively-medicalised depiction of birth we see in mainstream TV, movies etc.
In this sense, three iconic figures: the Virgin Mary, Calamity Jane and and Queen Elizabeth II, became powerful opportunities to picture birth in a way we have never seen, or perhaps dared to ask for. In ‘The Creation of Man’ we experience the primal power of a birthing Virgin Mary in the physical act of crowning Christ, whilst in ‘Royal Blood’ we witness the homebirth of Queen Elizabeth II in 1964 to Prince Edward, which broke four traditions in Royal history. In ‘Born of Calamity’ we see birth in a chaotic Wild West town - but symbolically - within the female space it always traditionally once was, co-existing against the outer separate masculine world.
The series is informed by the works of influential and polemical birth writers, and also brings to visual life stories and metaphors from important birth literature. ‘Ejection Reflex’ refers to the term ‘fetal ejection reflex’ coined by Niles Newton in the 60s, the natural phenomenon where a baby comes without forcible pushing yet is little seen in modern maternity wards. A glass Cube in an urban landscape is a metaphor for birth writer Michel Odent’s term in 'Salle Sauvage' (primitive room), and a famous 1911 London scene of Dr. Grantly Dick-Read, previously only known as a passage in a book, is brought to life in 'The Whitechapel Woman'.
Religion, as well as biology, has an important place in the series. ‘Aquadural’ harks back to 2700BC to depict the ancient roots of waterbirth and suggest the philosophical purposes that called Ancient Egyptians to birth their chosen priests in water. ‘Call to Prayer’ brings us to a modern day Muslim family birthing in a hospital, exposing the Islamic ritual of the Adhan prayer being whispered by the father into the ear of the newborn and consequently delaying cord clamping. In 'Power Pilgrimage' we see the father playing a very different, yet equally 'holy' role: kissing his wife as she serenely crowns her baby onto the bed bunk of a converted school bus - the scene depicts the first birth in 1971 that inspired the 'mother of midwifery', Ina May Gaskin.
In creating Birth Undisturbed, there is a strong personal but also universal motivation. Inspiration has come from my own motherhood: the anticipated stillbirth of my first child - my son Evan - and then my two healthy daughters that followed, Lilith and Skye. All three of my children were born in equally undisturbed homebirths assisted by a traditional midwife. I wanted to shared what I'd learned about birth. My desire to make this series stemmed also from a timeliness I believe is universally called for in a modern maternity crisis, but I wanted to avoid making the series overtly personal - relatable instead, across cultures and history. Instead I inserted symbols from my own births: a red towel, that features in every single image, is from my 3 births. Other items include Evan's cord scissors in 'Royal Blood'; in 'Call to Prayer' a Kwik Save supermarket bag from my childhood; even my own daughter Lilith, who plays in 'Born in Calamity, and myself as a model, quietly playing Ina May Gaskin herself, in 'Power Pilgrimage'.
Each image comes accompanied with a short film. These began as simply a way to show the behind-the-scenes, tell the story in my words, and better parade the detail of the hundred-megapixel files. But from 'Royal Blood' onwards, these documentaries began to be part of the art itself, and convey the message through dramatisation and less through my own voice. Normally I spend one day making both the image and the whole video. In the latest chapter, 'Call to Prayer' in 2020, for the first time I spent 3 extra dedicated days on the film. 'Power Pilgrimage' - the longest film of the series at 20 minutes and more of a mini-documentary about Ina May and the Farm - took 3 years from the first filming in Tennessee in 2017, to final release as the 9th chapter of the series in 2020.
Using storyboarding, meticulous planning of locations and models, a medium format camera and additional on-set film crew, both the final image and their accompanying short films help communicate the stories being told and instigate audience discussion. I have spoken at art and midwifery conferences where my images bridge the gap between birth and art, and the implications for a unique coalition between these two separate worlds are tremendously exciting.
-Natalie Lennard, 2020
Individual descriptions of whole series:
‘SALLE SAUVAGE’ (2017) translates to ‘primitive room’, a term coined by French obstetrician Michel Odent in reference to the hospital rooms he designed at Pithiviers, France, to accommodate primal labouring instincts. A glass Cube set within the urban London landscape becomes a metaphor for Odent’s concept and a woman’s connection with nature through homebirth. The walls of a living room have seemingly become transparent admitting our spectatorship into the privacy of a birthing woman, bearing a deeper significance now that childbirth has been lifted from censorship on social media.
‘THE WHITECHAPEL WOMAN’ (2017). A chance phrase by a woman in a hovel in Whitechapel in 1911, that childbirth wasn’t meant to be painful, led the young English doctor Grantly Dick-Read to write one of the most influential books of the last century, and his philosophy about the role of fear in childbirth famously enshrined in birth philosophy. Here visualised photographically, is Dick-Read’s memory of the encounter with a destitute woman whose rejection of chloroform led to the eventual scientific discovery of hormones.
‘EJECTION REFLEX’ (2017) is a reference to both the milk ejection and the ‘fetal ejection reflex’, a term introduced by Niles Newton in the 1960s, where a baby comes in an involuntary expulsion without forcible pushing, or accidentally. Utilising pre-Raphaelite and 1950s aesthetic American reference, a fictional narrative alludes to a universal reality: a spontaneous birth framing the woman within the roses of her driveway; her husband waiting within the trappings of the manmade, technological sphere: the surveillance camera, car and telephone wires of the outer world into which he was ready to transport her.
‘THE CREATION OF MAN’ (2017). The omniscient image of the Virgin Mary giving birth to the Son of God in a stable is celebrated yearly even in our modern day secular culture. Yet how is it that beyond Julius Garibaldi’s 1891 painting of Mary and Joseph slumped in raw exhaustion, we have never seen a ‘real’ depiction of birth biology, particularly of Mary in upright, primal instinct that such an environment would have helped facilitate? To witness this iconic religious icon in a recognisable Western pastiche of the Nativity scene yet raw and unexpurgated, highlights an alternately maternal, primal angle.
‘AQUADURAL’ (2018). Today, images of waterbirth are copiously shared online, but lesser known is its primitive history as early as 2700BC, when women in ancient Crete, Japan, South America and New Zealand were known to birth in shallow ocean and rivers. To our ancestors the benefits of cleanliness must have been apparent, but the 1960s gave rise to a body of query on the deeper incentive. Igor Tjarovsky, who assisted thousands of deliveries in water, claims it optimises the newborn brain by slowing down the onslaught of new sensations and putting the first breath last - a theory which may explain why Ancient Egyptians birthed their chosen priests in water.
‘ROYAL BLOOD’ (2018). The last Royal homebirth of Queen Elizabeth II was on 10 March 1964 to Prince Edward, born in the Belgian Suite of Buckingham Palace, England. Attended by midwife Helen Rowe and obstetrician John Harold Peel, it was the first of her children to be active and conscious during the time when the 'twilight sleep' era was phasing out. Historically, at the birth of any potential heir to the throne, the room would be crowded with observers. This photo recreates and spotlights the elusive revelation that the Queen broke several traditions in Royal birthing history: to be unobserved, and to have her husband, Prince Philip at her bedside, the first male Royal partner in modern history to be present at a delivery.
‘BORN OF CALAMITY’ (2019). Martha Canary, better known as Calamity Jane, was the most notorious heroine of the American Wild West. Little known is that she was a mother, living in one of the most dangerous eras to give birth, when disease like cholera and smallpox and dysentery were rampant. It may do better justice to understand how rather than childbirth being inherently dangerous, it was made so by large mitigating factors. Childbirth did not take the life of Calamity nor her daughters. In the scourge of great calamity, humanity was still capable, and the generations it bore are its legacy.
'CALL TO PRAYER' (2020) recreates a Pakistani Muslim family birthing in a hospital in modern Northern England. From 1950 to 2011 the Pakistani Muslim population of the UK has increased tenfold to a million. Most keen to use a hospital setting for birth, there is the question of how Islamic family ritual as well as optimal physiology is maintained. In the first moment this baby enters the world, the Adhan, the Muslim call for prayer, is whispered by the father into the right ear: 'There is no deity but Allah; Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah.' Done before the cord is cut, it also allows the scientific principle of nature is honoured and full blood runs to the infant till the cord is white and drained.
'POWER PILGRIMAGE' (2020). In 1971, three hundred hippies set off from California in a convoy of 90 trucks and schoolbuses to find a new life. The pregnant women amongst them, out a desire to treat birth as a normal part of proceedings, passed around birth manuals and learnt to deliver each others' babies on the road. Ina May Gaskin, called in spontaneously to assist a woman and watching in wonder at the first natural birth she'd ever seen, would describe it decades later as an 'astonishing, wild beauty' that seeded the legacy of the global bestseller she went on to publish, Spiritual Midwifery, and The Farm birthing community that became legendary.
PRIDE (2022) is a modern depiction of Adam and Eve standing naked with a newborn baby, wrapped up with the snake of temptation itself, flanked by an Arkful of 30 animals. Universal in culture is the image of Eve, succumbing to the serpent's temptation with the consequence of humanity's downfall. We end the series with more questions than answers, as we think about the birth of each and every human child who who comes from the mother and the father, and from whom gains his foothold, his strengths, his traumas. What does it mean to picture humanity fully stripped down to their unashamed selves, to ask not only of the origin but of the future of our species? Can man and woman regain their sense of pride in being the earth's true biologists? Can we again be proud?