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Maggie Shannon offers a rare glimpse of new life during the pandemic

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An intimate series follows midwives and mothers through a surge in demand for home births

In light of the Covid-19 crisis, soon-to-be mothers have had to radically reimagine their birthing plans. Fearing hospital restrictions and the prospect of delivering their children alone, many women have sought the help of personal midwives. Women’s Work, a project by LA-based photographer Maggie Shannon, captures the fraught intimacy of these types of birth. From check-ups in temporary tents set up outside midwife birthing centres, to long, excruciating labours in bedrooms and birthing pools, Shannon follows women through the trials of having a baby during a pandemic. These photographs speak to the care, nurture and trust shared between midwives and mothers, especially in a time of mass uncertainty and isolation.

'Taylor Almodovar’s partner Justin Gardner looks up for a midwife for support during a painful contraction at the New Life Midwifery Birth Center in Arcadia, CA.' © Maggie Shannon.
'Midwife Chemin Perez checks Taylor Almodovar’s progress during her labor at the New Life Midwifery Birth Center in Arcadia, CA'. © Maggie Shannon.

“It was difficult because I do love getting close to people, and to try and keep that distance between us, but still make the photographs feel intimate was definitely a learning curve.”

'Student midwife and doula Renae Morales gives Taylor Almodovar a powerful pep talk after Taylor decided to go to the hospital. Taylor had been in very tough and exhausting labor for more than 20 hours and not progressing. She had decided to be transported, despite fears of the hospital warning of a surge in Covid-19 cases.' © Maggie Shannon.

Beginning her project as California went into lockdown in March, Shannon was careful to take precautions when working. “It was difficult because I do love getting close to people,” she explains. “And to try and keep that distance between us, but still make the photographs feel intimate was definitely a learning curve.” But the tension between intimacy and distance was not just a consideration of process, it was also a subject of interrogation in the project itself. Shannon’s photographs, taken in private homes and birthing centres, depict two simultaneous realities. In some images, we see mothers and midwives adorning masks, administering injections and taking temperatures. In others, we see mothers in the arms of their partners, naked and in the throes of labour, their midwives by their side. Women’s Work captures the entanglements of pain and joy, closeness and separation, and what it means to bear new life in a time of disease and grief. 

Shannon was inspired by American photojournalist W Eugene Smith’s seminal photo essay, Country Doctor. Shot in 1948, the series follows the life of a physician providing around-the-clock medical care in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains. “I just wanted to update that for 2020 and then lean it in a more feminist direction. It’s not just this male doctor, who’s also white, we have women of so many different backgrounds coming in and helping other women,” she explains. In partial homage to Country Doctor, Shannon, whose work often plays with colour, opts here for black-and-white. By eliminating the distractions and stimulations of colour, Shannon’s stark, documentary images centre the relationship between midwife and mother-to-be. 

'Midwife Chemin Perez and her students at work at the outdoor section of the New Life Midwifery Birth Center in Arcadia, CA.' © Maggie Shannon.
'Midwife Christian Toscano checks on Roni Le’s baby in the sunlight to access the jaundice in early March.' © Maggie Shannon.
'Midwife Christian Toscano walks up to the apartment of Guadalupe Rios for her prenatal visit in the Highland Park neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA in early March. This was the last week Christian performed home visits before switching to Telehealth due to the outbreak of Covid-19' © Maggie Shannon.

Shannon recounts the complex experience of witnessing pain, unable to do anything but document. In many ways, the midwives are also limited: they are there to provide guidance and guardianship, but as Shannon says, “the women have to do it on their own”. And yet, at a time marked by images of separation – doctors in bodysuits, isolated patients, empty spaces – Shannon’s depictions of touch and care feel especially healing. Candid and vulnerable, each image tells a small yet powerful story of love.


Nurit Chinn

Nurit Chinn is a playwright and freelance journalist. A recent graduate of Yale University with a degree in English Literature, Nurit has published work in Wallpaper* Magazine, Off Assignment, and the Yale Daily News.


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