As a birth photographer based in Denver, Colorado, I've been lucky enough to watch over 100 families welcome babies into the world. On most days, I feel like I have the best job in the world. But on some days, I feel like I have one of the hardest. If you ask any birth photographer what the most challenging aspect of their job is...you'll likely here this response: being on call.
On Thanksgiving Day, I had BIG plans to announce my most recent pregnancy to my family. I had a turkey thawed in the fridge and an apple pie on the stove. Just as I was about to get out of bed to start prepping our big Thanksgiving meal, I received a text from a client - she was in labor and headed to the hospital. And so I called my parents, got in the car, and met her at the hospital. She had a beautiful birth, and I felt honored to capture her story. But when I got home that night...we still had that thawed turkey in our fridge.
And then on my birthday, I got the call at 5am. A client's water had broke at 36 weeks, and they were heading into the hospital. Once again I called my family and explained we needed to rearrange our plans. I didn't get home until 3am the next day, which meant no birthday cake or dinner out (although I did get to capture another beautiful birth story with an amazing family).
When you decide to become a birth photographer, you also decide to put your life on hold for your clients. They're asking you to attend and capture one of the most important days of their life, which means that sometimes you have to put your own important holidays, dinners, and parties on the back burner. This decision can become even more emotionally trying when you have kids of your own, who may or may not understand why mom has to miss out on Christmas or a birthday or a choir recital.
And then even if a birth happens on an ordinary day, it doesn't mean that you haven't changed or altered your lifestyle so that you can respond to that call with immediacy. Birth photographers carry their phones with them at all times. Our ringers are on high. Our bags are packed. We don't drink three glasses of wine at girl's night or a wedding. We may or may not have a hard time falling asleep at night knowing that we have a client who is on the brink of labor.
Being a birth photographer is an amazing job, but it's not without it's own unique challenges. As more and more people jump into this profession, it's worth discussing how to work through them...and brainstorm new ideas to bring more balance into the industry.
Below is a non-comprehensive list that I hope we can continue to add to as we learn and grow together:
1. Take time off.
I know it can be hard to turn away a client who is willing to pay. Especially when you're just starting out. But everyone needs a break. Everyone needs a couple of weeks or a couple of months where they can leave their phone behind. I recommend pulling out your calendar and looking into the following year. Do you have a lot of family birthdays one month? Do you want to go on summer vacation? Would you prefer to be free of your phone during the holiday season? Find out what month or (months) are most important to you and your family and TAKE TIME OFF. You can even list your vacation on your website so that clients will know you're off-call before they inquire.
2. Set Boundaries
If your daughter has her big Spring dance recital on May 14th, you can absolutely tell clients that if they book you for a May due date...you'll need to send a back-up on the 14th. Birth clients are parents...and so most understand that there are some moments and days that you just can't "get back." When you let your clients know that you have one or two non-negotiable "big moments" that you just can't miss...you give yourself the freedom to both do your job and take care of your family. Of course, for this to work you need to have a reliable back-up photographer that would be able to go to your client if she went into labor. Many birth photographers will pay their back-up a small fee for being on-call for those special days. Communication with both your client and your back-up is key if you're going to make an arrangement like this one work.
3. Form a partnership
Hospital/birth center midwives and OBs aren't on call 24/7. They have a rotating schedule that allows each of them to have days and nights where they aren't the ones answering the phone or the pager. More and more doulas have started to embrace an agency model, which allows clients to work with two or three doulas during their pregnancy...and then just one of them during birth. This allows doulas to have days off, just like doctors or midwives. It allows for more balance in what is a very demanding industry. Some birth photographers are forming collectives or partnerships that operate similarly. The challenge is that unlike a care provider or labor support, birth photographers create art and many clients gravitate to one photographer's style more than another's. Marketing a collective could potentially be more challenging than marketing one artist's work. But challenge can breed innovation...and can encourage professional growth as photographers learn and grow together.
4. Practice Self-Care
The more births you attend, the more you realize that your client's story is bigger than you. They'll go into labor without you willing it, they'll have their babies without your frenzied attention. Over time, you'll find that falling asleep at night is no big deal...even when you know a client is in early labor. Learning to let go is a process we all work though, in so many different areas of our lives. Letting go in birth photography often means establishing systems that allow you to feel organized and prepared. When I go to bed at night or out to dinner with friends, I know that I can wake up or come home and find my birth bags packed and my batteries charged. This allows me to relax a little more than if I had to clean up a disorganized mess before heading out the door. I also find that good food, great coffee, and long hot baths make me feel refreshed and rejuvenated. And so I consider it part of my job-description. Self-care is essential in an industry that demands so much of yourself.
5. Charge accordingly
Being on-call isn't easy and requires advanced planning. Birth photographers need to charge not only for the time they'll be at a birth (and we all know that number can vary widely) but also for the weeks that they're on call. Don't be afraid to set your prices higher. Don't be afraid to compensate yourself fairly for missing holidays, vacations, and parties. This is hard work. Beautiful work. It's work that we deserve to be paid well for.
If you're a birth photographer, how do you handle the "on-call" lifestyle? What do you find to be the most challenging aspect? What solutions have you found? We would love to discuss more in the comments below.
Part of our goal at Birth Becomes Her is to equip and encourage birth photographers in their professional journeys. If you're interested in learning more about our Birth Photography Toolkit, you can find info here.