Finding Your Style by Elliana Gilbert
Birth photography is a strange beast. We have very little control over our subject.
Compare with weddings, for instance; we attend the rehearsal ceremony, and chat with the wedding planner and officiant/spiritual leader and family and have some degree of say in where everyone goes. We can plan ahead to get the very best out of the images.
With birth work, we can hope for a good consistent light source, a delectable daytime birth with beams of light filtering through perfect window blinds or lace curtains. We can hope for just one colour hue in the lighting, to aid in subsequent post-processing, and hope for no obnoxious logos on people's clothing, no neon stripes across someone's pyjama pants. That's all we can do. Hope.
Because when we enter into a birth environment, it is what it is.
We get what we get. The space might be a messy home, or a highly sterilised and clinical space. The light source could be a harsh set of spotlights. The walls might be painted an ugly colour. The list of possible unknowns, variables and wildcards goes on and on. Our role as birth photographers is to document the birth. Simply document it. Document it as it happens. That is the bottom line. However, while we are doing our job, as photographers, and as artists behind that role, we have the creative power to inject our own personal style into the body of work we create. In fact, many clients hire us over other photographers precisely because of this individualized flavour we tend to add. Some of the greatest birth photographers out there are known for and are as successful as they are because of their distinct styles and visual flavours.
What does that mean exactly – when a birth photographer is known for their style or mood or visual flavour? It could mean all sorts of things. It could mean a reliable and consistent editing formula they have found works for them and use regularly with everything they put out. It could mean the angles they choose while actively shooting. It could mean how they use light and shadow, as well as how they operate their camera settings.
When we find our style, it's a lengthy continuous process which never truly begins or ends anywhere.
That is because, most often, it is an organic process we are not aware of, and then suddenly, gradually, our audiences speak out and identify the style for us, letting us know that x, y, and z are the reasons they recognize our images as being our own, and not someone else's. Or when we zoom out and see a sampling of our work (a great way to do this is to look at your Instagram profile, and just have a bird's eye view of all the uploads you've made) and then we, ourselves, are able to get a sense of the overall colours, content and styles.
Being an organic process, it can take many turns off-road. In order to find what really and truly works for us, individually, it is often important (though not always necessary) to experiment with different styles we have seen, or want to try. Like with anything, we can't truly know if we like it or not unless we try it on, taste it, get close to it. It's like finding one's style in clothing. We all wear tops, sure. But we often have to go through a range of shirts and determine through fit, colour, cut, and all sorts of mental and social constructs, how exactly we feel about any given top before we decide that it is the shirt we feel good and natural in when we step out of our home.
Of course, with some of us, we might just know exactly what works from day one, and always have that style. There is no right or wrong way to do it. When you look at the world of art, you come across artists of both types – those who bounce around among various styles, experimenting and exploring new mediums and styles and moods along the way (either in a passive way, based on how they feel in their lives, or deliberately, as something they actively choose to change up), and there are also those who have a consistent look and feel to their work right from the start, and they become well known for that specific style. The success of an artist does not depend on whether they were more experimental or more predictable. Success in the world of art is based upon many things, some reasonable and some less so, but ultimately, the work must reach out and grab the audience. That condition must be met for success to be reached.
Does your birth photography reach out and grab your audience's attention? Does it reveal your heart?
Do your images express your feelings towards birth, towards women, men, partnership, family? Do they reveal how you feel about light? Darkness? What about colours? Does your work feel cool and clean? Warm and grainy? Gritty and dark? Gritty and bright? Do you like textures? How about angles - are there angles you try to capture of laboring women fairly consistently? Do you like to shuffle things off of counter tops before setting up a shot? Or do you like aiming your camera right through the clutter? Do you like to frame your subjects using objects in the space? Or do you like to keep your shots wide with negative space? Does your work feature a consistent use of the speedlight? Or does your work emphasize whatever available light you have to work with? And what kind of moments do you most like to capture? Do you gravitate towards serene moments; expressing tenderness, gentleness and relief? Or do you prefer moments with emotional struggle, pain, physical tension, power, intensity? Because we are documentary photographers, one birth album will likely contain a little of everything mentioned here and more. But somehow, our style still permeates the collections... whether it be the moments we choose to capture, how we compose and frame them, or how we present them after post-processing.
So, what makes me tick? For me, personally, when I tap into my creativity, I am deeply influenced by everything I have loved, studied, and been affected by throughout my childhood, adolescence, and my twenties. I am drawn toward deep and muted colours – the kinds that could only have been made using natural ingredients, if you think about the old pigments and tinctures used in the fine art paintings of the Baroque era. Having studied art for most of my life, I gravitate toward a more classical type of framing, the use of flora in my compositions, working within the chaos of any space and bringing out the natural highlights by pulling them out of the shadows. I spent years and years sketching nude women. The body of a woman is something that stirs my heart and it's something that guides me when I am in the birth space, using my camera and my eye when framing/angling a shot. I also spent many years obsessing over drapes, and how to accurately sketch them, using light and darkness – so, naturally, I give emphasis to the folds of fabrics when composing my images. I love hands in paintings, and so, always try to capture moments of beauty involving hands, either just as they are, or how they are touching others in that moment.
I am drawn to emotional connections whenever I have my camera pointed at people.
Those intimate, raw, natural moments exchanged between people are always the moments I try to document. I come from a broken family, and my relationship with my mother and with my father have faltered and disintegrated over the years to the point where I became estranged from each at different points along my journey. So, with that in my background, I am particularly drawn to the connections between the labouring woman, and her mother or father, as well as the partner and his/her parental figures. There are many other elements that guide me in my work, which tends to give my style a fairly consistent feel. The ones I mention here are some of the big ones I wanted to share.
So, having said all of that, when you are out there shooting and editing your work, try to see your image and the style emanating from each image as being your ultimate signature. Not your business logo, not the watermark on your online images, but the actual images you put out there. When you are driving to your birth clients, think about what you know of them, and all the things about yourself that you know and love and want to channel through your photography. Set up a rough plan for how to merge the two worlds together when you aim your camera at your subjects. I say rough, because of course, as mentioned at the beginning of this piece, birth can be precarious and filled with unknown variables and wildcards. You are going with the flow the whole time. With that rough plan in the back of your mind to guide you in your initial setup, you can then bounce off of it and move through the experience with flexibility and a sense of adventure, all the while keeping your own personality and style close by to tap into when you can. And above all, make sure your heart is cranked to full when you attend your birth clients.