Recently, I was overjoyed to be invited as a guest during one of the Birth Rites Collection virtual tours hosted by Elenor Featherby.
Here’s what I learned, loved and discovered…
I first became aware of the Birth Rites Collection a few years ago via a client of mine who was a midwife who thought I’d be interested in it.
She was correct.
I fell in love with the idea and concept straight away and have been following their Instagram page ever since.
In case you’re unfamiliar with the Birth Rites Collection it is one of the largest and only collections of contemporary artworks dedicated to the subject of childbirth. The body of work has grown and accumulated approximately 80 individual pieces of artwork and is currently held in Kings College London.
The curators of the collection are Helen Knowles and Hermione Wiltshire, both of whom are artists and have work that resides within the collection.
I recently invited Helen and Hermione on the Adventures of a Birth Photographer Podcast to talk more about the origins of the collection, the artwork and the artists – Listen Here!
This wasn’t the first time I had done their virtual tour. During the pandemic last year I noticed that they had introduced virtual tours and booked a spot immediately.
I was not expecting the vast range of artwork that was in the collection. It boasts incredible photography, sculptures, prints, installations, videography and really thought-provoking conceptual work all about childbirth.
During the tour, I found it interesting to learn that some of the work on display had caused some discomfort to quite a few visitors. They also received quite a few complaints and this resulted in some of the work being moved to different locations or even put out of sight.
One such works that has caused much controversy is called “Therese in Ecstatic Childbirth” which is a stunning piece by Hermione Wiltshire.
It’s an image that was rephotographed from a book called *A Guide to Childbirth by Ina May Gaskin. The photograph depicts a woman smiling during the crowning moment of birth. Ina gave her permission for the work to be on display and asked that it be shown in as many birth-related places as possible, to help educate and to show how birth can be.
If you’ve not heard of Ina May Gaskin – Here’s a wonderful Ted Talk to watch!
Below is the image (Image courtesy of the artist and Birth Rites Collection)
Hermione Wiltshire – Therese in Ecstatic Childbirth, 2008
65 x 50 cm
Background & description: For this work, Hermione Wiltshire spent time observing the preparation of expectant parents at birth workshops given by the President of the National Childbirth Trust, Gail Werkmeister. Here Hermione witnessed the anxieties and hopes of parents-to-be. She became very aware of the prevalence of negative images of birth.
She says, “My work often reflects my interest in images that are politically charged. I am particularly interested in the cultural anxiety around images of crowning. [This] moment … is seen as shocking, stimulating the same response as a pornographic image.”
Such images of crowning were not used in Gail’s workshops because she believed their impact was distressing. At Matrix, a Birth Rites forum, Gail asked the audience, “should I traumatise them?”
Instances like these have been occurring since the beginning of the project, where those involved reassess how they work and why. In response to this research, Hermione chose to present what she believes is the answer to Gail’s dilemma; she presents Ina May Gaskin’s image of a woman crowning in ecstatic childbirth.
This is by far one of my favourite works in the collection and I’m shocked and saddened to hear how it’s been received. For instance, it has had so many negative reactions and complaints that it has been permanently taken down and hidden from public view.
We chat about this particular piece on the podcast.
Intrestingly, I also stumbled upon an article written by Natalie Lennard about this artwork titled- “What made people so angry about this picture of a birthing woman?” You Can Read It Here!
The stunning work by Helen Knowles’s (the curator of the BRC) titled “YouTube Portraits” really intrigued me too. Helen’s interest in childbirth came about after having two completely different birth experiences. A c-section and home birth. At the time she noticed there was a rise in women posting their births on YouTube and this prompted the question “where are women going to get information about birth?”
The work itself is enormous, full of texture and so rich in colour. Helen explains the process of creating this work during the podcast.
Here is Helens Work (Image courtesy of the artist and Birth Rites Collection)
Four Colour Screen Print on Fabriano Paper 1/4, 101cm x 135 cm framed under glass.
Four Colour screen print on fabriano, 1/5, 115.5 x 166 cm framed with glass.
Background & description: Drawing from a vast library of recent online birth videos, Helen Knowles appropriates imagery of women in the transcendental state of birth. Sourced from films posted on YouTube by women empowered by their experience, Knowles’ striking prints attempt to unpick cultural attitudes to birth and probe the difficulty audiences may have with certain kinds of imagery.
“Youtube Portraits” consist of seven large-scale screen prints. Using an innovative printing technique of exposing a screen with a digital projector, Knowles creates images that oscillate between the figurative and abstraction. By selecting footage that portrays the women’s euphoria, Knowles attempts to capture the intense emotion through a heightened colour contrast, challenging the separation between women as mothers and women as sexual entities.
As I went further into the tour I found myself wishing I could be there in person because so many of the artworks fascinated me. They captured my imagination and pull to see childbirth represented through various mediums of art.
I feel it’s imperative that artwork around the subject of childbirth is made, shared and seen.
As birth photography grows globally and as more and more women and birthing people are choosing to share their birth stories online via Instagram or YouTube – Finally, it feels like there is access to knowledge and a doorway into how birth can be. It’s a place to go and educate ourselves on all things birth.
I believe resources and artwork around childbirth is vital for future generations and that images like “Therese in Ecstatic Childbirth” should be seen and not hidden away.
I thought I would conclude by sharing three of my favourite pieces from the collection that I would one day love to see in person.
I invite you to take a look.
Triptych using 3 TV screens, 2 portrait, 1 landscape, Centre screen, DVD found video footage, audio/visual / montage, 3 mins loop.
Side screens 2 digital slideshows, digital stills, loop (Edition 1/5)
(Image courtesy of the artist and Birth Rites Collection)
Background & description: Claire Lawrie’s work A Massive Nothing combines, in a triptych, found video footage from YouTube of 100 women in childbirth alongside still portraits that capture viewer’s reactions to the video. Subjects were unaware of what they were to watch.
Claire was interested in recording reactions to the primacy of birth, and in the juxtaposition of moving footage of active childbirth with the still serene portraits of the onlookers, a reworking of the traditional altarpiece.
The people’s reactions is what I love and what interest me most about this peice. I love that the people had no idea what they would be seeing. The sound that accompanies this artwork also provides another sensory experience when viewing it.
The next is this one by Liv Pennington, Private View, 2006,
Digital C-type on aluminium, 80 x 76 cm (Image courtesy of the artist and Birth Rites Collection)
Background & description: Private View is a composite print of forty different women’s pregnancy tests from the London performance. A photograph of the test has been combined with text written by the women as they waited to participate. Each is unique like a fingerprint, presenting different patterns and colours which when displayed together become more apparent.
Private View as a performance has taken place in London, Poitiers and Oslo. On the night of a private view every woman who came to use the toilets were asked if they would take a pregnancy test. The results were relayed live in real-time above the bar.
The indicating windows of the pregnancy test were the only part to be projected, initially appearing abstract. There wasn’t any sound and the pregnancy tests were broadcast anonymously. If the women wanted to know their result they would go straight to the bar.
I absolutely love the concept and the fact that this is a live performance piece. What fascinates me most is the women who participated and the way the results of the tests were shared live. As a stand alone piece of art, visually, when all the pregnancy tests are placed together like this, it is truly an intriguing piece.
C-Type Photograph, 30 x 45 cm (Image courtesy of the artist and Birth Rites Collection)
Background & description: (one of two images) Home Birth (in the kitchen) produced in 2001, mark the start of Wade’s interest in the subject. In the works, Wade combines video footage from the (hospital) birth of her second son in 2001 with domestic scenes, juxtaposing the drama of the birth experience with detached images of the domestic, alluding to a deadening of emotions sometimes experienced in PND.
I was very much drawn to this artwork during both tours, the concept and juxtapostion halts my attention and I feel myslef absorbed in the image.
It has been such a pleasure to connect with Helen, Hermione and the Birth Rites Collection team. Special thanks to the BRC team for permitting me to share some of my favourite works with you.
You can find all the info you need including tour dates, summer schools and up and coming events via their:
You can listen to the Podcast Interview with Helen and Hermione: Ep20. Talks About The Birth Rites Collection Here!
If you’d love to view my images of birth please head to my Instagram Account
*Disclosure: If you purchase the book A Guide to Childbirth by Ina May Gaskin linked in this blog, I may earn a commission from Bookshop.org, whose fees support independent bookshops.”