A pregnant woman, naked, leans back in a chair. Her arm is lifted behind her head, her face buried in her elbow, as she concentrates on her breathing. Her husband crouches beside her, his fingers cradling her ballooned lower belly, dipping just above her exposed vagina. She heaves, he heaves, a seemingly simultaneous labour, as the next chapter of their life crowns its head from the space between her legs.
How would you feel, what would you think, if you saw this picture?
This is one of the 2,000 images unabashedly displayed in Carmen Winant’s photography exhibit, My Birth.
Featured in the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan, her collection depicts women - of all ages, shapes, and ethnicities - in the birthing process, hundreds of photos polka-dotting parallel white walls, posted with blue adhesive tape. These images, derived from publications from the feminist movement in the early-to-mid-1970’s, brazenly confronts a number of questions: one what are we supposed to feel, to think, to experience, when viewing these images? Whose narrative are these images publicizing; as Winants’ personal description (https://www.moma.org/audio/playlist/49/745) encourages viewers to contemplate, “who is [this] movement… for?” Whose narrative is it publicizing? What’s included in the image, and what’s left out?
Rightfully, she characterizes her display - for a multitude of reasons - as “a political act.” To have such vulnerability photographed, captured in a printed image and exposed for public viewing, is fundamentally radical. But, why is that?
My initial viewing catapulted me back to an experience from years ago, one that forced me to grapple with similar questions to those posed by Winant’s exhibit. I remembered rummaging through some old photographs, pictures in a dated album packaged up in my basement. Somewhere between the reprints of my third grade choir concert and my brother’s Bar Mitzvah were pictures of my mom during labour: three or four pressed together with a paperclip. The space between her legs was snipped away in each of the photos, creating a gaping semicircle where her exposed vagina and my crowning head would have been depicted. The photos were bunched up and hidden, concealed between reprints of pictures we had framed upstairs. It felt like the images encapsulating the glorious, sometimes gruesome, process of delivery were kept clothed and ornamented, the body in which I was conceived obscured behind the embarrassment of indecency.
I think that’s why my experience viewing Winant’s collection was so profound: because of the embarrassment I acknowledge I am supposed to feel, witnessing a woman give birth.
When I asked my mom, who had accompanied me through this exhibit, to describe her reaction to the photos, she responded with awe, with sentimental memories of her own labour. “There’s no way to describe it… the moment the baby is out, no matter how many stitches, and how many hours, you went through that pain, the physical [pain] is gone. You don’t even feel the pain… It’s just emotions. Really, there’s no way to describe it. The pictures described it for me.” Strung through her recollections, her own narrative, her eyes brimmed with tears.
I relayed to her, afterwards, my experience stumbling upon those pictures of herself during labour. Upon being asked why she cut the photos, she touched upon her conservative values from her upbringing in Israel. “I came from a family that [valued] modesty, and body was something that makes us feel uncomfortable… uncomfortable about our private parts. [And] private parts could be private moments, too.” She remembers her own viewing of the photographs of herself, delivering me: “giving birth, because it deals with such strong physical exposure… you forget, or you don’t know, how beautiful it actually is. That it’s the miracle of life.”
And that’s what Winants’ exhibit successfully - powerfully, shamelessly - compelled me to examine: this embarrassment we naturally feel when viewing the female body, that it is conditioned, and that it can be unconditioned. Exiting the exhibit, I ruminated on a hopeful future. I hope that one day, as a collective society, we’ll be able to embrace the female body, carrying and delivering a child, as something just inherently beautiful. That we don’t feel compelled to avert our eyes from a birthing body. That Carmen Winant’s collection surfaced these considerations deems it, to me, an important display, a viewing experience I’d vehemently recommend to anyone able to make the trip to the exhibit.