Birth Photography with Selena Rollason
Welcome to RISE Selena, it is an absolute pleasure to introduce you to our Community. You are an Internationally Award Winning Photographer with the most stunning, emotive images I have seen in Birth Photography. I would just like to ask you a few questions so we can get to know you a little better.
RISE: What everyone will want to know is what made you decide to photograph the miracle that is new life?
I started birth photography in 2011 after the birth of my third child. I was photographing weddings and family portraits at the time and was pressured into a caesarean section that I didn’t need. It was quite a traumatic experience for my partner and I and many tears were shed. The postpartum depression that followed lasted for almost 6 months and proved to be quite a dark time in my life. The one thing that really helped me process and heal though were the photos we captured. Being a photographer, I photographed a lot of the birth myself, with the help of my husband. I was able to use the resulting images to focus on the happy moments despite the trauma.
I knew that there had to be other women out there like me. So, I put out feelers online and was shocked at the response. So many women (and often their partners) reached out needing good memories of their own births. This was for all sorts of reasons: pregnancy after loss, birth after trauma, difficult conception and IVF journeys, surrogacy, family in other countries, military wives…the list goes on. Couples out there needed the happy and healing memories that birth photography provides.
The response to my services proved to be so high that two years later, in 2013, I gave away wedding photography altogether and took to birth photography full time. Next year (2021) is 10 years since I started on this quest and despite many ups and downs, I have never looked back.
RISE: How do you go planning for your shoots because as we know babies are very unpredictable and how long would you build up a relationship with your clients/parents?
Whilst you cannot plan the timing of the actual birth, you can plan so much else – especially a plan to be flexible. I allow a window of 5 weeks around a client’s due date. During that on-call period, my phone is with me at all times, I avoid venturing too far from home and my own family are prepared to provide support. Other photo shoots come with a rescheduling caveat that every client is aware of, and family/friends know that I may just up and leave (or not turn up at all) at their events.
To plan the actual birth, my clients receive information packs and we do a 2-3 hour prebirth consultation around 36 weeks. This covers everything from giving me pregnancy updates and changes to birth plans, through to when and how to contact me, what to expect from the day and listing their photo preferences. It’s all very structured and so much more planned than what a lot of people think. It all comes with one caveat – be flexible and adaptable.
Relationships with clients are built from the get go. We chat prior to booking, meet regularly in person (because no one likes to blind date in the birth suite) and are in touch often during their pregnancy. After their prebirth consultation at around 36 weeks, we’re talking at least once a week. I work so hard to build rapport with my clients that by the time the birth rolls around we have had on average 8-10 hours (sometimes a lot more) of communication and connection. I aim to connect so closely with my clients that they see me as an crucial support person and friend in the birth suite. Often I’m the only other person (aside from their partners) who knows their story, their fears and their wishes so intimately. It’s a privileged space to be invited into and one I do not take for granted.
RISE: As well as it being your job, there is no denying what a privilege it must be, to document such a wonderful event. How do you control your own emotions throughout the experience?
Weddings, funerals and births – some of life’s most emotional moments. Why control your emotions when we are emotional beings? At first, I got quite embarrassed and try to hide if I got emotional myself but I refuse to do that anymore. I do what I do because birth is such a special and emotional experience and I’ve come to accept that being emotional is perfectly ok for me too.
I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve cried tears of joy for my couples (it makes it interesting keep photographing though haha) but I’ve also laughed with them, commiserated with them (if things didn’t go as hoped) and collapsed in relief with them after a long night. It all comes as part of the job and I now embrace it for what it is.
I get told a lot that I’m an “emotional shooter” and that my images are so full of emotion and touching to the soul. I put this down to the fact that I allow myself to get emotional with my clients, and to photograph from that place. Being emotional helps me to put myself in my clients shoes. To feel what they are feeling and go on to capture it. Emotion is a big part of my job and whilst its embarrassing to be a blubbering mess sometimes, it makes me a better photographer.
The only thing I struggle with emotionally is when my clients experience, or are pressured, into something they didn’t want or give consent to. I’ve had to firmly stand up to midwives and doctors to advocate for my clients at times. It happens a lot here in Australia and it is part of the reason, I trained as a doula (birth support) in 2015. Many families now engage me to both photograph and provide support at their births.
RISE: Your photographs are truly breath taking and emotional to view. Is there a particular birth you have documented, that has stayed with you and why?
So many of my births will stay with me forever so choosing was hard. There are three that are particularly memorable – all for very different reasons.
The first, from 2016, was a surrogacy birth where a grandmother delivered her own grandson. The 46-year-old woman grew, carried and birthed her grandson, giving the gift of family to her cancer-surviving daughter. This was truly an incredible birth and super special to be part of. The story ended up being told globally in the media.
The second was memorable for a less positive reason. I was photographing a beautiful birth when unexpectedly my clients uterus ruptured during pushing. She was rushed into a category 1 emergency caesarean and we very nearly lost both mother and child. For 4 hours the doctors fought to save the mothers life while baby ended up in the neonatal intensive care unit. I refused to leave the father until we had news of his partners condition, and made the hardest phone calls of my life (to my clients mother) on his behalf. It is without fail, the toughest photo shoot of my life and I pray to God that I never have to experience that again. Thankfully, both my client and her daughter are doing well (3 years on) and we are now very close.
My favourite birth of all only happened this year – in the middle of this crazy pandemic. I was supporting a client at home, as her doula and photographer, when she yelled out to me to say that her vagina felt weird. I went in to find that her baby was crowning, and within minutes she birthed her baby into my arms. This was the first time I’ve ever caught a baby (I don’t make a habit of delivering baby’s) being the one to catch this gorgeous bub was more special than I can say. I now have an extremely close connection with my client and her son.
RISE: There is an honest, true rawness to your images, what thoughts go through you mind when post processing your images?
Real but beautiful is always my aim. Both when shooting and when processing. I work hard to ensure my photos are both a true and accurate representation of the day, but also provide a sense of respect, tastefulness and beauty. Most of this happens in the birth suite itself by choosing the right angles, managing light, composing the frame and waiting for the right moments.
As a result, post production then focuses on enhancing these moments – drawing the eye to the important parts of the image and creating the final look and feel of the photo. I currently do all my edits by hand and will not out-source my editing because the postproduction is a big part of my style. Some images work well in colour while others work best in black and white. Some images need strong contrast and drama, and others a soft and sweet feel. The beautiful part of birth photography and being unable to plan the shoot is that you never know what you will get. I love the diversity and excitement of that.
RISE: There must be many ups and downs throughout the birth and I know this isn’t a subject you shy away from. How do you prepare your parents and yourself for when you are dealing with birth trauma, especially when parents come to view their images?
I refuse to shy away from the ups and downs – this is the nature of birth. I like to show the real and raw in my images and feel that its important for society to see both the good and the bad. To know that it is ok to aim for a good birth, and that it is ok to share whether you did or didn’t get it.
Birth is not all pain and horror. It’s also not all unicorns and rainbows. And I work hard to change social views on birth always being something to fear.
Thankfully, I don’t see as much birth trauma as I see beautiful births nowadays. I’ve put a lot of this down to the support and preparation I instill in my clients. When trauma happens however, I work closely with my clients to help them work through it. I check in and debrief with my trauma clients in the days following – before even showing them a photograph. If I share sneak peaks, these are centered around the positive moments to help with reaching a good headspace. At their viewing, I stop sharing if they need and give them the OK to cry or grieve from their birth. Mentally this is important, both in their healing journey and in their enjoyment of their photos.
RISE: Congratulations on your many awards, is there a particular award you are proud of?
Winning the Photojournalism Grand Award at WPPI in 2019 is the award that I’m most proud of. Not only was winning such a coveted international award a massive achievement for me, but it was done with an image that was very close to my heart. I spoke earlier about my second most memorable birth being the hardest shoot of my life, and it was a series of images from this birth that took the top prize.
The winning series gave others a taste of how we felt in the post-birth hours when we waited for news of my clients condition. The series was deliberately left open ended because for a moment or two, I wanted to make others “feel” the anguish and panic that we felt for over 4 hours. To win such a massive award with images from this particular birth was very special and emotional for me. This series of images weren’t just my client’s story, but it was my story too. It might show them in the images, but it also showed my humanity and my inability to humanly function momentarily as a photographer – the blurred image representing a moment that the world literally spun.
The birth environment is like no other.
RISE: What advice can you give to a photographer looking to go into ‘Birth Photography’?
The two key pieces of advice for budding birth photographers are pretty simple really. Firstly if you can’t commit 110% and be able to drop everything at any time to run to the birth, then I encourage you to wait until you can before taking on birth photography. The fact that you can’t reshoot, nor book the exact time and date for your shoot means that there are simply no do-overs if you can’t make it. I hear all too often that “my birth photographer couldn’t make my last birth” from new clients and it breaks my heart. Birth photography is a massive commitment and to do it, you have to be prepared to drop your own life for theirs at all hours of the day and night (from family weddings, to Christmas, to dinner with your husband).
My second piece of advice is to practice, practice, practice and then practice some more……BEFORE you even step foot into the birth suite. The birth environment is like no other. It is often very low in light, contains mixed light sources at mixed temperatures, is tightly spaced, unpredictable and at the time of birth, high-paced and chaotic. Budding birth photographers should know their equipment like the back of their hands and practice high pressure documentary photography in low light well before stepping into the birth suite. How do you practice without attending a birth? Walk the streets of your city at night (safely) or set up a room in your home with candles and lamps. Photographers who do this before taking on births are more likely to succeed in the birth suite. The birth suite is not the place to learn.
RISE: Finally Selena, is there something you would still like to achieve within your photography career?
To be honest, I want to teach or speak in the UK and Europe before my time is up. After speaking with an English-based class attendee at WPPI recently, it came to my attention that UK and European birth photographers need more support and education. Whilst I’ve applied to speak at a couple of the conferences over there the cost of getting me to the UK from Australia has been the limiting factor.
Being able to share my knowledge and skills with others is a key part of my heart, and I believe that by building up others…. we build our industry up too. Covid has certainly put a spanner in that goal for now but I will continue to pursue my hopes of getting to the UK in the years to come as the world opens back up.
Awards wise, I’ve achieved so much and I’m extremely grateful and humble for the recognition that my work has received so far. I don’t have any specific awards aims presently but will continue to enter competitions as a means to better my photography and share the beauty of birth with the world. Hopefully one day I’ll win the coveted Australian Professional Birth Photographer of the Year title one day and eventually achieve my AIPP Grand Masters designation but these are long term goals that I will work towards slowly.
Outside of this, I still have a few births on my bucket list to photograph. Vaginally delivered twins is one of them, as is a natural breech delivery and, thirdly a birth that involves triplets (or more) baby’s. A face presentation delivery (baby born face first) would also be a treat to witness. The rarity of these births however make these births few and far between so they will be pretty special, if and when they come.