Extreme Pain, but also Extreme Joy by Maggie Shannon

Maggie Shannon’s stunning photo series documents the work of a number of midwives in Los Angeles during the pandemic

In 2020, as parts of the world went into lockdown to try to prevent the spread of Covid-19, many pregnant women faced frightening uncertainty. In the UK, a large number of NHS trusts banned partners from being present for the duration of labour, and in Los Angeles – where photographer Maggie Shannon shot her Extreme Pain, but also Extreme Joy series – midwives’ phones rang incessantly with calls from expectant mothers hoping to give birth from the safety of their own homes.

“With hospitals flooded with sick patients and many banning partners from the delivery room, the possibility of going through childbirth without a mask and in a familiar setting seemed, to these women, like the only option,” explains Shannon, who’s based in LA and specialises in portrait and documentary work (her first book, Swamp Yankee, explored the story of New England shark fishing).

Against the backdrop of fear and uncertainty prompted by Covid, Shannon struck up a relationship with four LA midwives as they navigated the new pandemic protocols. As part of her research she spoke with a range of different people, including a woman who’d been prompted to train after her own negative birth experience, and a midwife from a long line of midwives who ran a busy birth centre dealing with dozens of patients every day. Shannon hovered on the periphery of these midwives’ work, with the aim of capturing “what it means to bear life in a time of sorrow and grief”. 

Her series, as the title suggests, captures the agony and ecstasy of childbirth. Shot in black and white, the images contrast the squashed, screaming face of a newborn with the huge smile of his father who’s just caught him in the birthing pool, and records mothers’ facial expressions of unbearable pain as well as joy. The midwives are ever-present, although Shannon often focuses on the ministering presence of their hands, ­whether comforting women or using the tools of their trade.

“I was struck by the courage of every woman I witnessed: the calmness and resolve of the midwives and the power of the women in the throes of labour who pushed through all of the agony,” she says of the experience. “I witnessed pain and was unable to do anything but document it in order to tell these women’s stories. Midwives provide guidance and guardianship rooted in generational wisdom, but mothers ultimately must still experience the extremes of birth on their own, just as death must be reckoned with as an individual.”

For Shannon, these images offer a counterpoint to a time in history that was “marked by separation and death”. She says childbearing, and the work of midwives, often goes ­undocumented, perhaps because so much of birth remains taboo. She believes there’s an element of healing to be found in these stories of “connection, care and birth”. And this is perhaps particularly true in light of the pandemic. As Shannon says: “In the middle of a time of global suffering, there is a comfort in seeing each mother holding her new baby to her breast. Two humans touching for the first time, when touch is so severely restricted.”