Interview with Erika Townend, birth photography ‘I think sometimes women shy away from how their body can look and change … it’s about normalising birth’

Antonia writes: I was really thrilled to meet Erika Townend at a Birth, Bump and Babies event in Surrey.  As with lots of incredible multi-tasking women I’m meeting these days I soon found out that Erika is not just a birth photographer, Erika is also a doula, post natal doula and a Hypnobirthing teacher. She also has two children of her own! I am in awe of some of the paths women have chosen to walk. I always feel utterly humbled when I realise  that some people are entirely motivated by helping others, and I got exactly that sense with Erika. We discussed how Erika’s own experiences of motherhood have shaped the career path she has chosen. How she stands tall in her work as doula and birth photographer, and how her own experiences help her understand and empathise with the transition to motherhood. I think women like Erika truly do change people’s birth experiences and what a tremendous gift that is. Erika has a very special heart and a beautiful purpose in her day-to -ay work. It was a total pleasure to meet and chat with her.

I really wanted to understand how Erika came to birth photography as it’s a relatively new area for us in the UK. What is birth photography? What does Erika capture? How did she come to being a birth photographer? I asked these questions and plenty more…

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Erika Townend

Erika has been a doula for around six years now. She is co-chair with Kate Hargreaves (who runs Birth Matters) for the Maternity Voices Partnership (MVP) which is all about collating information on what people want from their birth experience/s, to feed into the fantastic NHS Better Births programme. Erika is also part of UK Birth Photographers.

A: Erika, let’s start at the beginning, how did you come to train as a doula?

It was during my first birth, I personally received a lot of comfort and support from a close girlfriend whilst in labour that I realised was a very different kind of support than what my husband was already offering. 

My connection with my girlfriend was very different, she had been my best friend for many years.  We knew each other well, she had two labours, and women tend to connect in a different way than with men. 


I had a very long induction first time around but once labour had started after the artificial rupture of membranes it was quick birth with some help from syntocinon and some gas & air.  Emotionally  I felt so well supported by my friend and husband as my birth partners. Having this support was part of the reason I recall this birth as a positive birth. 
I think you can get past physically demanding labours quite quickly, providing there’s no significant trauma (tearing). But I truly think that it is when a woman does not feel fully emotionally supported, that she can struggle during the birth and beyond.
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Photography  by Erika Townend

I thought, if I can give what she gave me then that’s what I want to do. I wanted to help women have better birth experiences. Becoming a doula felt like a calling.

After the birth the doctors were concerned about my baby’s sugar levels and so they took him to a special care unit just to monitor him. I was dazed, exhausted and naively I wasn’t aware that I could go and visit him.

If a woman feels supported in the true sense then she’ll find she has more strength than she ever knew.

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Erika with her second child

It was only when my birth partner and friend, returned to see me that she asked ‘where is he?’ (the baby). I explained that he was the a special care unit. She was the one who asked the question of whether we could go and visit him. Without her I might have gone even longer thinking that I couldn’t see him.

Birth partners are valuable not just for the birth, but for afterwards too. 

When my children were a little older I went on to train as a doula with Michel Odent (Michel was in charge of the surgical and maternity units of the Pithiviers hospital (France) from 1962 to 1985, Odent has developed a special interest in environmental factors influencing the birth process. He introduced the concepts of home-like birthing rooms, birthing pools and singing sessions for pregnant women). I found him mesmerising, He’s very softly spoken and that coupled with his French accent means you really do lean in and pay attention to every word he says. It’s like Michel is demonstrating how you should behave in the birthing room. I found him a real comfort to be around.

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Lifestyle photography by Erika Townend

I waited until my youngest child was five years old and in school before I could really give myself to becoming a doula. It took a little while to gain traction, maybe a year and a half before business became really busy. Once I became a doula, offering to be a postnatal doula came quite naturally.

I genuinely love my work.

 

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Newborn photography by Erika Townend

A: That’s fascinating. Your personal experiences and your growth in your career seem inseparable. I love how your journey into motherhood has shaped your business and the service you provide. Now, onto your amazing birth photography. How did you make the move from doula to birth photographer?

E: I had moved quite naturally into taking photographs of people’s births because of my work as a doula. I had enjoyed being an amateur photographer for years and so it felt easy for me to offer birth photography in the birth environment. I didn’t think of publicising my birth photography until it started to become more popular in the UK over the last 18 months or so.

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Birth photography by Erika Townend

A: Do you work as a doula and a photographer at the same time?

E: Sometimes I work as a doula and a birth photographer and sometimes I’m just hired as a birth photographer.

A: How does it work if you’re hired exclusively as a birth photographer?

E: If I’m working just as a photographer I observe labour and the birth very quietly and discreetly. You need to intuitively observe what is going on in that room. Intuition will tell me when it is ok to take an image or of it is necessary for me to stop or step out of the room, which includes if the couple needs time on their own. By the way, I avoid using flash and my camera is totally silent, a concern that is often expressed.

I’m also very respectful of the hospital and that I’m on their property and I respect their staff and their operating procedures. I make an effort to make sure I have a good communication with the staff and a good working relationship with doctors and midwives.

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Birth photography by Erika Townend

It’s so important for the birthing mother that everyone around here is respecting her space and working well together.

All this comes with experience, you have to read that room and you can not get it wrong as I don’t ever want to shoulder the burden of negatively affecting a woman’s birth. I come from a place of true respect for the birthing process and having learnt all about being a doula from Michel Odent

I understand the importance of privacy, comfort and support for the labouring woman.

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A: Why are you so passionate about birth photography?

I truly believe that birth photography can heal in some situations.

I went to visit one lady postnatally. I knew she’d had trouble breastfeeding, she told me she felt awful because the baby didn’t latch straight away in the room after I had her. I said ‘wait’ and loaded up her slideshow on her birth. I stopped the slideshow to show her that baby did latch exactly when she thought she hadn’t. So this mother was living with this feeling of ‘I let this baby down, she didn’t latch because I didn’t put her to the breast before I went down to theatre, this is why I can’t breastfeed’. I kid you not, from that moment of seeing her image and proving to her that she hadn’t let her baby down, that baby, within five minutes, just latched and didn’t stop. I think that’s a big part of it. A switch went on. That’s just an example.

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Lifestyle photography by Erika Townend

A: What’s your favourite birth photograph?

E: One of my favourite photographs is of a Dad reaching out to congratulate his wife just as she was giving birth, and of the partner gently caressing his wife’s hair. These moments would otherwise be lost or forgotten, and it’s beautiful that I get to keep them alive so that these parents can re-live the birth from a different perspective. I get to capture that moment for an indefinite period of time.

A: Do you like taking photographs of partners? I had  naively assumed you would be all about the mother and baby!

 I think taking photographs of the partner is so important!

The partners are so often the ones taking those first photographs and they can get missed out. If I’m there though I get to photograph those beautiful first skin to skin moments or the look of admiration towards the woman and their newborn.

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A: Whilst I know that you must photograph the woman in labour and the birth of the baby, what else do you capture in your photographs of a birth?

E: Just about anything, I am trying to capture the ‘feel’ of the room.  I love capturing the tiny details these things make up the story.  I aim for a documentary style of photography.  Of course, the moment of birth of both the partners face and then the mothers, the first skin to skin, the first feed and the first of everything.

Often immediately after a birth everything feels like a whirlwind for the parents and so it’s nice to capture it frame by frame for the family, so they can look back over it at a later date.

E: I capture all that amazing body language between the birth partner and the woman. I really love the permanence of photographs. Whilst our recollections can fade, you can always have the photographs to look back on. I’m surprised we’re so happy to invest in wedding photography and we don’t consider the same for the birth of the person you created.

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A: So how does it work with hiring you as a birth photographer?

E: In much the same way as when you hire a doula. I will be on call from about 38 weeks, keep in touch with the client. I have a minimum of two meetings beforehand to discuss everything, what are you looking to achieve and what are you hoping for me to capture; is it videography, stills, slideshow or prints. After the meetings I’m constantly in touch with my clients with calls or texts or emails to see how they’re getting on. Of course then the client will need to let me know when they think things might be happening and then they call me when they think I need to be at the labour. I then observe things very quietly and discreetly.

A: Do you chat beforehand about how ‘intimate’ the photographs will be?

E: If you’re alluding to the crowning ‘shot’, then yes. This is something we’ll discuss in one of the sessions before I go on call. I can take a modest shot. All shots can be taken in a way where you’re not exposing everything so it’s just about knowing where to position yourself and your angle. For some women they’re not interested in the crowning shot at all, these are not my photos so it is entirely up to the client to dictate what she wants from her photographs. Some women are very happy to capture the crowning shot. Sometimes I might catch a crowning shot. I might say to the woman, this photograph has been taken very tastefully but I’ll put it in a separate folder and if you want to look at it, it is there for you, rather than presenting it as part of the slideshow all in one go. I think part of it is therefore about how to communicate that to the client. I always say, it’s there for you if you want to keep it and if you don’t then it’s absolutely up to you. 

I can not guarantee a certain shot or story. So much depends on the moment at that time, the lighting, the number of people in the room many many factors.

I think sometimes women shy away from how their body can look and change and again it’s about normalising birth and potentially, how we look. 

 

Capturing that moment for the woman to look back on

A: Yes! That’s reminded me that I’m wondering where my crowning shot went. Typical of my Mum, taking out the iPhone and capture my son crowning and then WhatsApp it to me a few weeks later! I’m worrying where I’ve put that image – ha ha. I love it, but I don’t want it to go astray.

E: Probably on a cloud somewhere!

A: ha ha! Yes, probably! Now, if you could write one thing on a billboard for new mothers, what would it be?

Allow yourself to change.  
Embrace the change from woman to mother with the same grace and amazing strength that you have always had.
Isn’t Erika wonderful! Erika also specialises in lifestyle photography, she can photograph you in your most beautiful natural state at home after having your baby, which I think is so in harmony with the idea of taking things easy for the first 40 days post birth.

Erika works in and around Berkshire, Surrey and Hampshire. She is a wonderfully warm and compassionate human being.

You can read all about Erika’s birth photography here

https://www.erikatownendbirth.co.uk/birth-photography/

If you’d like to learn more about what a doula can offer, you can read more here

https://www.erikatownendbirth.co.uk/doula-services/

If you’d like to talk to Erika about Hypnobirthing then follow this link

https://www.erikatownendbirth.co.uk/hypnobirthing/

You can also follow Erika on Instagram @positive.birthing

As we were exchanging emails, Erika left me with this beautiful parting quote

In Maya Angelou’s words,  “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

Beautiful.

 

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