Birth photographer’s big push for professionalism

During discussions in an AIPP Special Interest Group (SIG) back in 2014, birth and maternity photographers looked at introducing a Code of Professional Practice for Birth Photography. A suggested code has now been drafted for AIPP members to consider, adding to the existing Code of Professional Pratice.

Photographing a birth requires more than polished camera skills and a ‘fly on the wall’ approach. Behaving professionally and appropriately in a medical environment, and understanding the delicacy of a expectant mother’s birth space is two vital, yet often overlooked, elements of the job.

Source: Supplied

Source: Supplied

The code’s purpose is to assure clients and medical professionals that the photographer – a third party in a birth – will behave appropriately no matter what situation arises during a shoot.

Established birth photographers have exhibited concern that mistakes or poor behaviour from a single inexperienced photographer could tar the entire industry with the same brush, resulting in hospitals restricting or banning photography.

‘There’s a high risk of birth photographers being kicked out of hospitals, which may result in hospitals setting up policies restricting us,’ Victoria Berekmeri, an Adelaide-based birth photographer, explained to ProCounter. ‘So I think the AIPP is the best place to start by making a benchmark to help photographers new to this part of the industry to understand what a reasonable expectation of behaviour is when they step into the birth space.’

Victoria has been a vocal advocate of birth photography in Australia, a member of the AIPP SIG, and worked closely with many others to generate the suggested Code of Professional Practice.

It’s straightforward – made up of two sections with practical, self-explanatory clauses.

The suggested additions to the AIPP's existing Code of Professional Practice. Source: The Working Pro

The suggested additions to the AIPP’s existing Code of Professional Practice. Source: The Working Pro.

The first section covers General Matters, such as accepting the birth plan of a woman; seeking permission for any photos which may be used for business marketing or in social media; and explaining the process of photographing a birth (and the journey), including what equipment will be used, and what events are to be captured.

The second section covers Hospital Matters, and acts as an agreement whereby the photographer will: not impede on activities, consultations or medical procedures conducted by hospital staff; co-operate and be advised by all medical professionals in regards to safety and privacy; not offer medical advice as a photographer; seek permission before photographing hospital staff; leave the birthing room to allow privacy during medical procedures if requested by parents/medical personnel.

The way the industry has changed means that now couldn’t be a more appropriate time to introduce such rules, Victoria said.

As professional photographers cast a wider net for their services, they cross over into a variety of genres.

Demand for birth photography hasn’t slowed in recent years, so more domestic photographers – those who shoot weddings, families, and portraiture – lump birth photography into their specialities and market it accordingly. – Which isn’t problematic until photographers have their first birth photography client and find themselves scrambling to prepare.

Emotions will run high, things rarely go according to plan, and medical professionals all react differently to having a photographer in the room.

‘There’s no such thing as being a fly on the wall at a birth. You are an extra body in a room and if things go badly or become urgent more people will enter the room and you may be in the way,’ said Victoria (who by co-incidence was exhausted from spending the entire night photographing a birth when we spoke to her). ‘I completely understand why some doctors look at you sideways and ask you to leave. Some hospitals have a two-person-per-room policy. There’s lots of things to contend with, and balance that with the needs of your client.’

The threat of photography being banned is quite real. There have been cases of photographers being booted from a hospital wing.

Currently no hospitals in South Australia have a formal policy that accommodates patients requesting professional photography. Victoria speculates this may change as birth photography is a growing consumer-driven service.

Two of three hospitals in Adelaide have policies which restrict photography in the operating theatre. While these rules have existed for some time and weren’t implemented due to any incident involving a photographer, it only takes a single catalyst for these rules to broaden or be enforced elsewhere.

Knowing and following the general policy of a medical environment, as well as learning specific rules at hospitals makes life easier for everyone.

‘For example some photographers (AIPP members) have videoed in the birth suite and you can’t video in hospitals. These are fundamental things that shouldn’t be done. There are photographers that have been seen doing this, so it’s important we solidify it’s not appropriate,’ said Victoria.

Birth photography complications
Photography restrictions, such as those in Adelaide, can complicate arrangements made with a client if they request to have the birth captured but find themselves in theatre. To avoid disappointment it’s always safer to never promise specific images – sometimes it just isn’t possible.

Permission is required from all medical staff who appear in photos. Many may not want to be photographed while working their job. Letting staff know their faces will remain outside the frame allows them to concentrate on the job. Source: Supplied. Photo: Victoria Berekmeri

Permission is required from all medical staff who appear in photos. Many may not want to be photographed while working their job. Letting staff know their faces will remain outside the frame allows them to concentrate on the job. Source: Supplied. Photo: Victoria Berekmeri

‘The art of this genre is to manage expectations from the start. Clients must be informed before they even sign the contract, that I can never guarantee a particular shot,’ Victoria said. ‘My priority is for the health and safety of her and her child and as such I must adhere to all medical requirements, policy and requests from those managing her labour and post-partum.’

Victoria said she gives all her birth photography clients a letter she had drafted by a PR practitioner, which they provide to the obstetrician, hospital or other medical personnel. Many care providers are unfamiliar with Victoria’s service, so the purpose of the letter is to explain who she is, the photography plans, and her code of practice.

Another letter, signed by the expectant parents, confirms that they have employed Victoria for these services and her attendance at certain events has been requested.

‘This isn’t me wanting to go in to make money or because I want to photograph a birth – I’m there because this woman wants this service. I think a lot of staff don’t always understand that,’ she said, adding that obstetricians often praise her for providing notice of attendance, but midwives can quite rightly become protective of a mother-to-be.

Additionally, using a Code of Professional Practice provides ideal discussion points during client meetings, in addition to the nitty-gritty terms of the job contract.

Beyond the medical field, there’s also an emotional landscape a photographer will deal with. Many first-time mothers are stepping into unknown territory, and can be stricken with anxiety or stress. The last thing they should worry about is the end product (the photos, not the baby!).

‘It (the code) gives expectant mums a little more security and confidence that they’re employing somebody that knows what they’re doing and everything will run smoothly. For example, when a woman is in labour they become quite vulnerable. To be able to in that space and not adding your own anxiety or expectation to the room – it’s something that has to be learnt. Not everyone copes well in these high-stress situations.’

Victoria has introduced the suggested additions to the AIPP Code of Professional Practice, but is unsure where it goes from here. She published an article in the AIPP’s monthly online magazine, The Working Pro, outlining the suggested additions, and hopes fellow photographers will support and push it over the line.

It will keep AIPP birth photographers accountable and minimise any unwanted mishaps caused by a photographer during a birth. Photographers, clients, hospitals, and care providers ideally need to work together – not against each other – and this will hopefully assist in facilitating communication. Plus, it’s not a bad document to use for marketing photo services!

Victoria runs in-depth workshops exploring the business of birth photography, and has published a book, The Business of Birth Photography. Click here for more info.

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