In August 2017, Brooklyn-based photographer Alice Proujansky documented Sarit Shatken-Stern giving birth to her second child. A midwife in Massachusetts, Shatken-Stern granted Proujansky access to this profoundly personal event for an assignment Proujansky was undertaking for Her America. Below, Proujansky tells PDN how she landed the assignment and why she chose to change direction halfway through it.
PDN: How did this assignment come about?
Alice Proujansky: I had worked with photo producer Zara Katz on a few projects in the past, and she knew that I photographed women and labor (birth, work, motherhood, migration). So she asked me to pitch her some stories about birth for Her America, a project she was helping produce for Lifetime/A&E. I did a lot of research and one of the ideas I proposed was documenting EMPOWER, a program at Baystate Franklin Medical Center in my hometown of Greenfield, MA, for pregnant women who have been exposed to opioids.
PDN: What did Zara ask for in terms of visuals? How did you deliver that?
AP: The original story followed a woman who had successfully participated in the program, looking at her life as a mom on Medication-Assisted Treatment. Those visuals were hard to find, because much of her story had already happened. While I was at the hospital where this woman was a patient, I met pregnant midwife Sarit Shatken-Stern, who said she didn’t think she’d have her baby while I was there. But if she did, I was welcome to photograph it… I came into the hospital on the morning of my last day of the assignment and asked, “Where’s Sarit?” Her colleague said, “She’s getting checked, she thinks she’s in labor.” It was an amazing stroke of luck that she gave birth while I was there, was so generous about letting me photograph her, and had her baby during the day in a room with beautiful light.
PDN: Was this change of direction a stretch, or right up your alley?
AP: I loved this assignment and felt right at home doing it. I have photographed birth a lot. I look for stories about midwives providing respectful, evidence-based care to populations who wouldn’t otherwise receive it. I think it’s important to share the birth stories our culture lacks—we don’t really look at birth very much and we struggle to place it in context (is it medical, spiritual, dangerous, transcendent?). So we end up rushing to extremes and thinking that birth should be a magical, perfect experience, or that it’s a terrifying and disgusting crisis. I want to show what it looks like, to try to place it in the middle as a liminal, incredible process that’s very intense but, astonishingly enough, normal.
Access with these kind of stories is a big challenge, but I showed the hospital previous work and explained how I get informed consent before photographing. Also, my siblings were born there when I was three and seven. My parents gave me a point-and-shoot camera to document it, so it’s technically the first place I ever photographed a birth.