National win for Adelaide birth photographer

By / 23rd of September, 2014
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Adelaide photographer Victoria Berekmeri’s sometimes controversial work capturing the birthing process has been recognised with a category win in the Australian Professional Photography Awards.

The Australian Birth Photographer of the Year award comes just over a year after one of her photos of a baby being born was removed from an exhibition at the National Wine Centre, then returned with a translucent cover, after some patrons complained it was too confronting.

“It represents a lot of hard work, late nights, long hours,” Berekmeri told InDaily of the national prize.

“It’s peer recognition for the type of work that I do, which isn’t as mainstream here as it is in America, but it’s certainly heading in that direction.”

Berekmeri won the documentary photographer of the year title at last year’s Canon AIPP Australian Professional Photography Awards, after which she and a group of more than 50 birth photographers set up a special interest group. A website was created, and they successfully pushed for the introduction of the new awards category.

While she wasn’t surprised that last year’s winning image upset some people – “for the documentary category, you need to be confronting” – Berekmeri says it didn’t entirely represent what the genre was about. The portfolio she submitted this year for the inaugural Birth Photographer of the Year award included a newborn opening his eyes for the first time, a woman in labour, a baby being born, and a triptych showing the closeness between the parents during the birthing process.

“We don’t want it to be the shocking, confronting images, but to be about the emotion and storytelling,” she says.

“What I want people to understand is that birth is a very natural and beautiful experience – it shouldn’t be a fear-based topic of discussion. As a woman, for me it was one of the biggest achievements of my life to give birth to my son.”

Nonetheless, one of the portfolio photos – described by the photography awards organisers as “a baby transitioning between mother and the outside world with arms folded in” – was recently removed from her Facebook page after someone reported it for nudity.

Berekmeri says the unfortunate thing about this type of censorship is that it stymies the opportunity for social discussion and debate.

“I understand that it’s not everybody’s preference to see images like that … but the biggest thing that bothers me about that type of censorship is that when that controversy was talked about, lots of people posted comments, some were negative, but the majority were good, and it gave people who hadn’t made up their mind the opportunity to look at both sides.”

Berekmeri – who also takes pictures of a range of other subjects, including architecture and interiors – photographs about three births a month in Adelaide. They include hospital births, home births, water births and even “hypnobirths” (a drug-free process which uses different techniques to help the mother reach a relaxed state of mind and body).

Late-night callouts are an occupational hazard; Berekmeri says 3am seems to be the most common time for women to go into labour. The longest time she was present at a birth was 20 hours, and on one occasion she had three clients having babies within three days.

“I get messages at all hours of the day and night to give me a heads-up when things are happening. A lot of photographers getting into it don’t realise the true extent of being on call.”

And while the more graphic birthing images may be what garner the most attention, not every client wants these; some prefer photos that capture the bond between the parents and baby. These are mounted in a book, and often accompanied by a written birth story.

For Berekmeri, it was what she describes as the “eventful” birth of her own son that prompted her to photograph her first natural birth in 2010.

“It was really empowering. It was what I had expected births to be but not what I experienced.

“I have photographed about 50 births since then.

“It’s been a journey that started out as a healing one but has become about changing people’s perceptions … it (giving birth) is not like what you see on TV; it can be a beautiful experience.”

Story first published on InDaily.