CORINNA, Maine — Brianna Waltman was born at home, 28 years ago, in a white, split-level ranch. Her parents buried her placenta out back, under an apple tree. Growing up, there was never any mystery about where babies came from.
There’s a growing social movement to “normalize” pregnancy and childbirth, and Waltman documents the process to provide a glimpse into the miracle of birth — in all its forms. It’s not just something she’s good at doing. Waltman is passionate about it, too.
“I want to normalize what women actually do to bring babies into the world,” Waltman said. “It’s not some crazy, scary medical procedure. Women give birth every single day, and it’s actually a very beautiful process. It’s just as important as your wedding day to document.”
Two years ago, Waltman left a secure day job, setting herself up in business as a wedding and portrait photographer. Not long after, as a diversification strategy, she documented her first birth. Waltman was hooked from the start.
“It lit a fire within me, and I found — not to be too philosophical — exactly what I was put on this earth to do,” she said.
Waltman approaches her job with a photojournalist’s eye for realism and storytelling. She then blends that aesthetic with an artist’s sense of color and mood. Waltman steers clear of greeting card sentimentality, creating stylish images, overflowing with pathos, drama — and ecstasy.
Her pictures are far from cutesy.
“Birth is dark and moody. You get emotional. There are heartbreaks,” Waltman said. “You get challenging decisions that need to be made. It’s raw. It’s authentic. It’s natural —- but I try to be artful.”
It’s also time consuming. Waltman mainly shoots natural births, both at home and in hospitals. As every parent knows, babies arrive on their own schedule. To accommodate this fact of life, she goes “on call” for about seven weeks around each mother’s due date — cameras ready, batteries charged.
“It’s not the easiest life, but it’s something I absolutely live for and I don’t care,” Waltman said.
Recently, she got a call from a family in the middle of the night: It was time. She dropped everything and drove almost four hours to the client’s home in New Hampshire.
“I showed up and her labor stopped,” Waltman said.
She then slept on the client’s couch for five days, waiting for the labor to start again. It didn’t happen, and Waltman eventually drove home. The very next night, she got the call again. Waltman rushed back to New Hampshire, arriving in the nick of time.
“I made it with 15 minutes to spare,” Waltman said. “If it involves birth and photography, you can bet I’m going to be there.”
Maine has about 20 professional photographers advertising birth photography. None of them do it full time. Even for Waltman, weddings are still paying most of the bills. But she’s getting more birth business all the time. If the trend continues, she plans on shooting only deliveries by next year.
It’s still sometimes a difficult sell. Occasionally, Waltman will mention her birth photography to a bride or mother-to-be and get a wrinkled expression of disgust in response.
“It’s still an underground, taboo kind of photography,” Waltman said.
Waltman has also been on hand to document sadness, attending two births where the babies didn’t survive. One baby, Emily-Anne Olive Ross, lived only 17 minutes in her parents’ arms.
The labor had come on suddenly, just shy of 20 weeks. Mother Amber Ross said it’s now all a blur of emotion in her mind.
“If it wasn’t for Brianna’s pictures, I would probably have no memories of my child, of holding her,” Ross said. “I didn’t even know [Waltman] was there. She was so quiet and amazing.”
The photographs document the bare grief of that day, last July. Monty Ross, Amber’s firefighter husband, weeps openly, holding the tiny child. A chaplain reads from the Bible as they look at their little girl.
“There was so much love in that room, and it shows in the pictures,” Ross said.
Now, Ross is pregnant again and has already asked Waltman to be there with her camera, when the next baby comes.
“It’s an honor for me, when people trust me with these moments in their lives — where they’re naked and completely vulnerable,” Waltman said.
So far, Waltman has made pictures at 20 births and has at least five more in the works in the next few months.
“I know my work is not for everybody, but I want to make an impact,” she said. “If I could make a pause button in life, I would, but I can’t. The best way I can leave a little bit of myself on Earth after I’m gone is my pictures.”