Amid the Covid pandemic, the photographer Maggie Shannon documented the work of four Los Angeles midwives and the women in their care. I recently asked her why she thinks they trusted her during some of the most vulnerable and intimate moments of their lives. “To be honest, I’m not sure,” the artist told me. She only knows that she was honest and open from the start, and they agreed. She’s grateful they did.
Now collected under the title Extreme Pain, but Also Extreme Joy, the project began in the early days of the pandemic. Shannon was inspired to reach out to midwives after a conversation with her friend, Paige Schwimer, a doula in Los Angeles. “We were talking about how the pandemic could adversely affect women,” the photographer remembers. “She mentioned hearing that there could be a rise in home births due to mothers wanting to avoid the hospital and with partners being banned from the delivery room.”
After calling midwives nationwide, Shannon confirmed that her friend was right. “The midwives were overwhelmed by requests from new clients desperate to give birth outside of a hospital, and I found their story so important,” she remembers. “What does it look like to give birth in a time of such chaos and shifting medical protocol? Four midwives in Los Angeles invited me to follow them as they did home visits, and also introduced me to women that would be open for me to come and photograph their birth.”
Shannon documented births that took place at home as well as those in birthing centers. One midwife, Chemin Perez, moved a large part of her birthing clinic into the parking lot, setting up tents to provide vital care to mothers inside. Another, Jessica Diggs, showed parents-to-be how to listen to their child’s heartbeat over video chat.
“When a midwife connected me with a mother that was interested in allowing me to photograph her birth, I set up a phone call with them so we could chat and they could ask me questions,” the artist says. “I also tried to meet up with them in person if I could. Face-to-face contact is so important, and I didn’t just want to show up on the day of their labor with my flash going.”
Every birth was different. “What surprised me most was how fast a birth can be but also how slow!” Shannon admits. She tailored her approach to the birth and the family. “I’m constantly listening to the midwife and mother, feeling the room,” she explains. “If it starts to feel like my presence, especially my flash, is overwhelming anyone, I step outside.”
She continued to document births as the pandemic wore on and the midwives and mothers faced new challenges. “The protocols I follow have changed as we’ve learned more about Covid,” Shannon says. “In the beginning, I was disinfecting all of my gear, wearing a KN95 mask, showering, and washing my clothes after each session. Now I still mask up and use hand sanitizer. I also got my booster as soon as possible. The midwives, the families, and my husband’s safety are extremely important to me, and I don’t want to put anyone at risk.”
Telling a story about women, who were disproportionately affected by the pandemic, felt especially urgent. And a time when carefree human contact felt like a distant memory, witnessing parents holding each other–and their children–was a healing balm.
“This project was extraordinary to work on during the pandemic and I think saved me in a way,” Shannon says. “Being able to still connect with other people and working on something that I feel so passionate about probably kept me from entering a dark place, especially in early 2020. Seeing how much these women care for each other, that empathy, was so special and kept me sane.”
She’s kept in touch with the midwives and the families she met along the way, and she hopes to do follow-up sessions as well. She tells me, “I’m still in awe that the midwives and families were so incredibly kind to let me into their homes to document such beautiful moments.”
All images © Maggie Shannon