Jenna Shouldice’s Powerful Black and White Documentary Photography (NSFW)

All documentary photography by Jenna Shouldice. Used with permission. 

“During labor, I feel like a magnet to the experience,” explains Jenna Shouldice. She’s a documentary photographer based on Vancouver Island. Her curiosity in the human experience has led her to document one of the most emotional moments a person can go through – giving birth. The process of giving birth is often misunderstood. People cringe at the thought of blood, pain, sweat, and tears. But in her series, The Labor Process, Jenna has managed to show the beautiful, gentle, binding journey people go on when moving into parenthood. This project is extremely moving. To see such a moment of vulnerability communicated in a series of powerful images is special. We spoke to Jenna to learn about how she first had the idea, and to understand how the process of putting it all together was for her.

Phoblographer: You describe the series as starting from the natural lure to the beauty of laboring women. What do you personally find so compelling about the labor process?

JS: I’m very fascinated by the intuitive nature of the birthing process. It interests me that around the globe, women, without any guidance, can give birth. That our bodies are designed to grow and recover and that babies are born knowing how to eat. The sounds of a laboring woman are like music to me, and I instinctively want to be near them. To top it off, I’m also fascinated by the process of people going from individuals to parents. People have been trying to describe this experience to each other for years and come up short. If I could possibly capture a slice of that experience, I’d be happy.

Phoblographer: Can you tell us about the process of finding your subjects?

JS: I have been somewhat lucky finding families to photograph for this work. Years ago (2009) when I first realized ‘hey, you are obsessed with birth why aren’t you photographing it?’ I got asked out of the blue to photograph a friends birth two weeks later. From there it has continued on somewhat naturally. I gave out a stack of prints to the women I photographed early on, and they would show them to their pregnant friends and I’d get hooked up with someone new. Now it’s word of mouth, friends, midwives and often other photographers who I end up photographing.

Phoblographer: Although you can roughly predict a birth, there’s no telling exactly when it will happen. How did you ensure you did not miss the critical moments once these women went into labor?

JS: For most women, I would show up in their labor very early on. I have been at some births for 36 hours, for example. It allowed me to be apart of all the stages of labor and be witness to what those moments bring. Of course, it does require being on call and being able to leave everything at the drop of a hat, and that can be somewhat disruptive to your life. It’s just a time period where I know I’m at the mercy of the labor itself. Luckily, I’m not Type A and don’t mind the lack of control.

“I hope to make work that people can connect with, especially around a time of birth.”

Phoblographer: It’s a very vulnerable moment for any woman. As a photographer, while being so close to the experience, how do you ensure you protect the dignity of your subjects?

JS: I’m always photographing from a position of empathy. My work would be nothing if it exploited its subjects. Instead, my approach is to make pictures that honor and celebrate the depths of the birthing experience. I attempt to give power to the moments no matter how vulnerable the people are in them. Instead of trying to curate an arbitrary idea of what a birth should look like, I photograph with honesty, and with the purpose of celebrating how powerful those honest moments actually are.

Phoblographer: Creatively, did you have an idea of the moments you wanted to capture? Or did you go with the natural flow of the situation in order to create your photographs?

JS: Aside from the obvious expectation that I would attempt to photograph the transition into parenthood, I didn’t go into this project with any preconceived ideas. My understanding of both the unpredictability of birth and of documentary work allowed me to go into it open-minded.

Phoblographer: Why was it important for you to do this series and what impact do you hope it has on your audience?

JS: Personally, it was most important for me to work on this series because I was so naturally drawn to it. As a photographer, it’s kind of hard to ignore a heavy pull towards something. I think it’s important to photograph what interests you. Sometimes what interests you can often be over looked because you’re trying to come up with something cool. Aside from that, I hope to make work that people can connect with, especially around a time of birth. I want to give an interesting and yet accurate view of what this process is like. I don’t think our kids have enough exposure to what birth means or what it looks like, and I hope to provide a body of work that leaders ( adult parents, caregivers, support etc) can reference.

“I love anything to do with the female experience…”

Phoblographer: You’re in a room full of family, in what can be a chaotic environment. What impact did this have on your method of working?

JS: Probably the more that’s going on, the easier it is to focus on your work, to be honest. Any and all of the excitement just ignites MY excitement, and I try my best to focus hard on how to get across the feeling of that room. The more emotions I experience or pick up from others, the more I have to channel into my work. I remind myself that what I’m doing also plays an important role and I find my literal place in the chaos.

Phoblographer: What tends to be the reaction when you show the images to your subjects?

JS: I would say it ranges from fascination to highly emotional to empowered. I have seen women who would cry their eyes out at a wedding slideshow be dry and wide-eyed with interest at what their bodies are capable of when looking at photographs of their labour. Giving birth is not the same as a watching yourself give birth, and I think it’s a unique experience to be able to reflect on it visually.

Phoblographer: Are there any other natural parts of the human experience that you would like to cover in the future?

JS: I love anything to do with the female experience, so if I had to narrow it down, I’d say that. But I’m sure like many documentary photographers, I’m interested in the human experience in general and am open to photographing so much of it. I am curious myself to see what will interest me later.

You can see more of Jenna’s work by visiting her website.