Old Birthing in the New World
I traveled to Cuzco to do a feature different from most news stories. This was to be a project of several days that would give me the chance to photograph in depth without the usual rush to file my pictures. The story was about vertical birthing in a public clinic on the poor outskirts of Cuzco.
Cuzco is a spectacular city full of Incan ruins and history, and it turned out that this was the week of Corpus Christi during which the Catholic faithful parade their saints in procession, under an impressive full moon.
Birthing is a subject capable of overwhelming anyone, even a photographer like me used to maintaining a distance from most subjects. It was impossible not to feel empathy towards these women who in their agony waited patiently alone for their turn to give birth, without taking anything to stop the pain.
The fact of me being a woman and a mother too was like an invitation into their world, even though I had never felt the same pain of birth that they were feeling. They always asked me if I had a child, and that opened the door for me.
On the second day of the story, an obstetrician named Guido told me that this was the night of a full moon, and that there would be many births so I should stay overnight. He was right. I was fortunate to witness four births that night. Just being there was a privilege, as well as an exhausting and hallucinating experience. These births are natural, without anesthesia. The pre-labor room, where the women endure the pains before actually giving birth, is really a chamber of terror in which the women scream out their pain, lying on the floor or pacing. They suffer, endure and survive in spite of not receiving anything for the pain.
They stand, the babies cry out as they are born, and the exhausted mothers make room for the next to take her turn.
Many times I just hung up my camera to console one of them and give her my hand during the contractions – things that I would normally never do…It was impossible not to.
The third woman of the night was Mary Luz, a 21-year-old single mother. The father of her baby had been killed in a traffic accident on Christmas day. This was her first child and she spent hours in the pre-labor room, crying and very nervous. In the labor room things became complicated when she tried to give birth standing, with great difficulty.
They tried lying her down on a bed to cut her perineum because she wouldn’t dilate enough to allow more than the head to be seen. Amidst an atmosphere of butchery, with the blunt instruments that wouldn’t cut and the lack of anesthesia, there was a blackout. The clinic had neither candles nor flashlights, not to mention a generator. Guido, the obstetrician, very calmly requested a light of any kind, even if it was from a cell phone.
Apart from Mary Luz and myself, inside the labor room there was the obstetrician, a male nurse and a woman nurse, and they didn’t have anything to light with. I took out my Blackberry and offered it to illuminate the mother. I tried to take pictures but there was too little light and the obstetrician couldn’t see to cut the perineum. I turned on the screen of my Canon 5D camera and I got as close as possible, offering just enough light for them to cut. I had been recruited. I spent the rest of the birth helping, following orders to aim the light here and there. Nothing worked for them to cut, not even the blunt scissors. The baby wouldn’t appear and the minutes seemed like hours. Mary Luz screamed and screamed. The blood meant nothing to me compared to the anxiety of wanting to see her baby born.
At last the baby appeared and the first screams flooded the room. We could only hear the baby crying, against a background of darkness and silence. Then, with one hand I illuminated a nurse as she cleaned the baby, and with the other hand I gave light to the obstetrician as he removed the placenta. I was still helping.
Finally, others entered with candles and it looked like the Corpus Christi procession.
It would have made a wonderful photo, but I was still assisting the nurse with the baby and was barely able to take a couple of pictures before the lights came back on. That was when I realized that I was trembling and had my robe covered with blood. I remained next to the mother, consoling her as she cried while they stitched her up.
The blood was not an issue for me. I’ve seen a lot of blood related to death in my work, but this was a story full of life that reached deep into my soul.
The next day, after photographing a few more births, I went to the Cuzco Cathedral, an imposing ancient church, and went inside to find thousands of saints still illuminated from the previous night’s Corpus Christi celebration. I kneeled on a pew and when an un-tuned organ began to play along with a Quechua chorus, I covered my face and cried an ocean of tears.
I followed the mothers during the next few days and the story ended in their homes. These people gave me more than what I gave them. I had only planned to take pictures, but they invited me into their houses, gave me food and beverage, and had me hold their babies. I ended up the last afternoon sitting on the bedside of Viviana, conversing with her family and feeling as if I was in my own home.
It’s for stories like these that I became a photographer.