Oh baby: Photos look at birth around the world
With Birth Day, Lieve Blancquaert delivers a timely and compassionate multimedia portrait of the cultural, social and political differences surrounding childbirth across the globe
New life, different problems
Ghent photojournalist Lieve Blancquaert is there too, witnessing and recording one of the 364,500 births that take place around the world every day.
Birth Day, a TV series about Blancquaert’s two-year project, is now showing on Eén. It follows the publication of a book of the same name, which includes 400 of the 5,000 photos she took on her travels. They are accompanied by moving stories of the people and places she encountered.
She also provides a pertinent reminder of mortality rates for women and children – figures that remain too high and will fail to reach 2015 millennium development goal targets. Her images, many of them large-format, are on show at the ING Cultural Centre in Brussels until 5 January.
After such a monumental and personal undertaking, Blancquaert admitted that it was strange to see her work on show. “It is stressful that it now belongs to the public and no longer to me,” she says. “Luckily, the reactions have been positive.”
One of the next episodes of the TV series broadcasts Blancquaert’s visit to the poverty-stricken rural area of West Bengal where Tanti lives. Sundarbans in the Ganges Delta is a group of isolated islands in one of the world’s largest mangrove forests. In addition to the appalling and overpopulated hospitals, the difficulty and cost involved in even getting to medical facilities contributes to the soaring cases of infant and maternal mortality. For many women, traditional home births remain their only option. For every 100,000 women giving birth, 450 do not survive.
Question without judging
If a woman needs a caesarean, she has to travel to a larger hospital. Blancquaert visits one in a small town near Calcutta. Throughout her mission, she talks to doctors, midwives, patients and their families to photograph and recount the customs surrounding childbirth and the conditions in which it takes place. As a journalist and also a mother, her aim throughout is to observe, question and not judge. But this hospital, with its chaotic and inhumane treatment of patients, is a disconcerting experience.
It is stressful that it now belongs to the public, and no longer to me
Girls, many in a distressed state, await surgery dressed in gowns and wearing plasters stuck to their foreheads bearing their name and what operation they will undergo. Some are giving birth, others are having abortions. Operations are carried out in a production line, while in the noisy and filthy ward, women are lying across each other, some expectant, others having just miscarried or given birth. Blancquaert’s final, indelible image is of a young girl who has just had her baby, blood running down her legs to the ground where cats circle, licking their lips.
Fascinated by the universal story of birth, Blancquaert found herself asking: Why do we bring children into the world, and what kind of world will they grow up in? Convinced that where and how a child is born is an important indicator of its future, Blancquaert says that “you can learn a lot by the first touch and the first breath taken; it’s such a strong moment.”
She accompanied new mothers to their homes and communities, forever curious and questioning. In West Bengal, Tanti returns to her village the day after giving birth, supported by her family although the father of her child is absent.
As a Hindu family, their strong beliefs and traditions extend to childbirth. On her return home, Tanti must ritually wash and then remain in the one room, resting and excluded from all household chores for 21 days. During this period, a husband may not touch either his wife or child. Once recovered, Tanti will have to find work as a cleaner in Calcutta.
Rights and health
This ritual of cleansing and recovery is repeated in many of the countries Blancquaert visits and is one of the many fascinating and revealing facets of her project. It was conceived when witnessing women first in Kabul and later in Burundi and Congo giving birth in terrible conditions. For Blancquaert, women’s rights and health are connected, and the birth experience mirrors the wider society.
You can learn a lot by the first touch and the first breath taken
In India, a successful birth-control programme has developed over the past five decades to stem overpopulation. Sterilisation, contraception and spacing of pregnancies mean smaller families have become the norm. But the plight of women in the country’s numerous poor communities remains a serious concern.
Blancquaert’s journey continues to the bible-belt of Atlanta, in the US state of Georgia. Widespread right-wing and religious convictions have resulted in the highest teenage pregnancy rates in the world for a developed country. Contraception and abortion are discouraged and are prohibitively expensive. Poverty is another theme of these sad stories of young girls bringing up their babies alone.
Economic hardship accompanies snapshots of Rio de Janeiro, where pregnant women and small children live on the streets. Blancquaert found the city schizophrenic, its inhabitants sharing an optimism despite the divisiveness of its society.
In the slums of Nairobi, meanwhile, Blancquaert is faced with a “hellish” place where people live around an open sewer. Amid the squalor is a maternity hospital where nearly 100 babies are born a day in an endless assembly line little concerned with the sanctity of life. Despite the poverty, violence, overcrowding and HIV, there is also a place for joy in the community, where an orphanage, The Nest, rescues abandoned babies and children.
In another part of world, unimaginable wealth has created another vulnerability. The oil-rich country of Kuwait is suffering dwindling fertility: Inbreeding is commonplace as families intermarry to preserve their fortune. It avoids the problem by providing citizens with treatment via the Brussels University Hospital rather than tackling the root causes.
Sometimes it was hard, and some days it was full of joy, just like life
Meanwhile, a luxury delivery suite at a maternity hospital in Kuwait City provides five-star care, including post-birth nips and tucks. Kuwaitis, Blancquaert discovered, become instantly detached from their babies because of the gulf of privilege that separates their society. In the hotel-like maternity clinic, babies are immediately whisked away to a nursery.
The incessant heat has also led to a pervading torpor and inherent laziness. One recurring theme is the way women leave the comfort of the clinic for the cocoon of their mothers’ home for a 40-day “unclean” period in which she is further pampered. Another is how childbirth remains a matriarchal event from which men are frequently excluded.
Blancquaert then dons thermals and a ski suit to talk to health professionals in the isolated Greenland town of Sisimiut. She also has to adjust to a slower way of life among the Inuit community, which is determined to pass on its traditional way of life to children in a sustained battle to reverse the Danish social programmes that started in the 1950s, resulting in widespread alcoholism and abuse, as well as a loss of identity.
The final episode of the TV series and the book is devoted to Brussels and is perhaps the most shocking for being so close to home. Blancquaert leads us into the little-known world of immigrants in the capital of Europe. Exploitation, displacement and poverty are a sad indictment of the western world.
How did the lengthy assignment affect Blancquaert, who has two children with film director husband Nic Balthazar? “The project marked me in many ways, which is normal. The way I worked was close to life – real life, no theatre. Sometimes it was hard, and some days it was full of joy, just like life.”
Blancquaert’s portfolio is dominated by social and political work, but she is a woman on a mission. Her future projects are Wedding Day and Last Day. Birth Day is published by Editions Lannoo and is available in English, Dutch and French. The TV series airs Mondays nights on Een
Until 5 January
ING Cultural Centre