A Kalispell photographer’s studio walls hold images of newborns dressed in bright colors — some as bumble bees and others wearing tiaras. In most photos, the babies are posed with their eyes closed and their hands folded under their chin.
Photographer Kimberly Eckhardt said it’s easy to display these images — it’s her prized photo that she typically keeps out of sight.
The image shows a mother’s hands around her child still wrapped in the amniotic sack the baby had grown in for nine months. They sit together in an inflated pool filled with water. The father’s lips are parted, almost into a smile. The baby’s hand is placed on her head.
“This is helping normalize and celebrate the birthing experience,” Eckhardt, 35, said as she described the image. “It’s about capturing the raw emotion of birth. It’s unscripted and beautiful. I just want to share that.”
The photo, titled “En caul, posterior, nuchal hand surprise babe,” won honorable mention in the International Association of Birth Photographers annual competition.
The winners include a couple driving to the hospital, the dad’s arm stretched out from the driver’s seat toward the soon-to-be mom in comfort. The mother is screaming through her contractions.
Another is a portrait of a woman clutching the sides of an inflatable tub as she prepares to give birth. A third is a doctor bracing for a baby in the mother’s final pushes.
“Birthing photography is not for everybody,” Eckhardt said. “But we were all born — everyone of us went through that experience.”
ECKHARDT never intended to be a photographer. She started by recording the details of her four kids — the way their hair stood up as it grew, their outstretched fingers and the creases in their legs.
Every moment felt important, “because babies change from day to day and it’s just extreme.”
As her friends got pregnant they began asking for photos of their children. Some even asked for Eckhardt to document the scenes in the delivery room.
“It’s almost taboo to have somebody in your birthing space … it is such a behind-closed-doors thing,” she said. “But with me being there, I was able to capture the dad soothing the mom. The power in her face in a contraction — all of it as she was bringing this beautiful baby into the world.”
Eckhardt describes herself as the silent observer, there to catch the moments parents don’t absorb during a birth. Like the father and mother’s intertwined hands, the baby’s first breath, the nurses waiting in the corner with towels.
There’s no professional gap between a birthing photographer and their clients, she said.
“We’re going to be spending a lot of time together, and they need to know that if they get angry or they growl during a birth or whatever, that I’m OK, that I get it,” she said. “I’ve been where they are.”
She’s taken photos of home births and hospital room labors. She’s been there for cesarean sections, with worried parents on one side of a curtain and doctors on the other.
Some moms want pictures of their babies emerging and others don’t.
“Some are more PG than others,” Eckhardt said.
“The room is thick with emotion. It’s overwhelming. It’s magnificent. The things that a female body can do to bring that baby into this world,” Eckhardt said. “And the look on their face when they see a baby for the first time.”
THOUGH her birthing photos are some of her favorite pieces, Eckhardt said they’re tucked away in a tab on her website. She avoids sharing birthing photos on her Facebook page, ever since she recognized she was losing followers with each share.
“People get turned off by birth photography,” she said. The process of a woman giving birth still feels like it’s supposed to be secretive, she added.
“If the prize photo wasn’t so controversial, it would probably be on my wall,” she said, looking at the photos hanging in her studio.
Children’s headbands lined the walls. Wooden shelves held rows of themed props. Everything was clean, colorful and cute.
Behind Eckhardt was a photo with a father, his back covered in tattoos. His newborn baby is resting in the dip between his neck and shoulder.
At one point, that photo would have been controversial too, she said.
“I hope the more birth photography is shared, it won’t be so taboo, because it’s so natural,” Eckhardt said. “Everybody on this earth was born — one way or another — and I want it to be shared.”
After all, its part of documenting the human experience, she said.
Reporter Katheryn Houghton may be reached at 758-4436 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.