It started with a call at 5:46 pm on Monday, July 21st. “She’s in labor, you should get to the hospital,” said Brittney’s grandmother. I had been waiting for this phone call for the five weeks I had been filming Brittney, but it didn’t make my heart pound any less.
Actually, it all started in the fall of 2013 when my classmates and I were told that we would be spending the next year of our lives proposing and the producing our senior capstone projects. As I narrowed down my project ideas, it dawned on me that what I wanted to do was create something that would destroy someone’s preconceived notions of someone very different from them. I immediately thought of the pregnant girls I had so harshly judged in high school and realized that I needed to tell their side of the story through young women who were currently pregnant and facing stigma. I chose to work primarily with video because I wanted my audience to hear my subject speak for herself.
At the end of May I made a breakthrough in my senior capstone project. After six long months of working with the administration trying to meet girls at the Young Mother’s and Interim Health Academy, I was finally allowed to meet several of the soon-to-be teen mom’s that attend the Rochester City School that provides counseling and extra attention to pregnant students in addition to regular subjects such as math, science, and english. Brittney was one of those young women.
Gaining access to the birth of someone who is not family can be frustrating experience. Almost everyone I asked for advice on the subject had only photographed home births or in birthing centers where they had been invited to photograph. So, for the most part, I was flying blind in regards to gaining access to a hospital. To get my questions answered, I went with Brittney to all of her OB/GYN appointments leading up to her due date. It wasn’t until the third appointment that I finally met her Obstetrician, but I spoke to the doctors that saw her the two previous weeks so when I finally did meet her doctor she already knew why I was there. I was told I could not do any video or audio of the birth, only stills. At first this upset me, but that is the law now even for family members so I accepted it as a storytelling challenge. When she was in labor, I made a point to introduce me to all of the nurses who came to attend to Brittney. Her family was also on my side and Brittney had given me permission to be there, which was very important. After her water broke she had contractions for almost 24 hours before she actually began pushing, so I left the hospital to get some sleep after being there for six hours. When I got the call a few hours later than she was pushing, I rushed back to the hospital only to be told that they were not accepting any more visitors for her room. My stomach sank. I began frantically texting professors hoping one would be awake. I didn’t know what to do. Then, the obstetrician came and asked why I wasn’t inside. She said she would see what she could to to get me in. Soon, the doctor that would deliver the baby came and got me and gave me an all access pass to photograph. The only thing I couldn’t photograph was the baby being pulled from the birth canal. If that isn’t a case to make friends with everyone you can, I don’t know what is.
Really nothing prepares you to witness human birth. One of the professors on my committee told me that it would be beautiful and a little sci-fi. Another professor told me repeatedly not to be afraid of the crotch and to be ready for the money shot of the baby as soon as he or she is pulled from the birth canal. Brittney was a trooper; only in the final pushes did she begin to cry from the pain and say she couldn’t do it. But she did it and within seconds she was no longer a teenager, but a concerned mother. “Why isn’t he crying?” she asked. The baby had spent too much time in the birth canal and was stunned. After a few minutes of being attended to by the team of nurses the sound of his cries filled the room and everyone could breathe a sigh of relief.
Dylon James was born at 9:33 am on July 22, 2014 weighing 7 lbs. 12 oz. His father, Dom, 16, stood over him. Just hours before Dom had been all jokes, but now the weight of the situation fell upon him and he was silent.
The experience was profound to say the least. I grew so much as a photographer that morning; almost like a rite of passage for myself. As photojournalists, our job is to tell other people’s stories in dignified and meaningful ways. We gain access to and are entrusted with the most private moments of people we have just met. This is something that I cannot take lightly. That morning I witnessed a profound moment in Brittney’s and Dom’s lives; adulthood has come early for them.
I sent an email out that night to my family as a birth announcement of sorts with photos from the delivery. My father’s response put into words my feelings on the moment perfectly. He said, “Sort of wonderful and heartbreaking at the same time. Well, hopefully, all involved will have a good long journey together.”
The road is not a straight path for them nor will it be level, but I am here to document and hopefully shed more light on and humanize this issue.