Using tights crops of her facial expressions during labour, a portrait of the intense experience is created
When Belgian artist Julie Scheurweghs was pregnant, she asked her partner to photograph the birth. But when she saw his images of her 16-hour labour, she was acutely disappointed. Shot on seven different cameras, with different ISOs and a mix of black-and-white and colour, the images felt distant and clinical. For Scheurweghs, they did not convey the experience. “It took me a while to see what I could do to claim them back and make them my own, to make it my birth story,” she says. “But once I figured out I had to zoom in, mostly on my face, I got into the flow.”
The result is her first book, Mère, published by Kult Books; a striking portrayal of birth which Scheurweghs carves out via tight crops of the original shots. The baby and the anatomical details are for the most part absent – what is presented instead is a portrait of an individual undergoing an intense physical experience, sometimes in pain but at other times almost ecstatically calm. In some images, it is not clear that Scheurweghs is giving birth; the cover image, she laughs, has been mistaken for a woman in orgasm. “What gets the baby in gets the baby out!” she says. “And yet people often separate birth from sex.”
It is a blind spot she has played with before, bringing together crops of medical images and vintage porn in an exhibition titled Women As Parts at Botanique, Brussels, in 2019. The title refers to the depersonalising gaze of both types of image, which focus on women’s bodies, not faces or experiences. It also refers to the old dichotomies between sex and motherhood – dichotomies so engrained that, for many visitors, the two sets of images seemed incongruous.
“Porn presents this very male point of view of sex without pregnancy, because historically men haven’t had to think about pregnancy,” Scheurweghs points out. “If the woman gets pregnant, it’s her fault. It’s always her responsibility. But if you have sex, you can get a baby. Oftentimes that’s how it works!
“When I was first pregnant, but not showing, I was seen as a hot young girl. From the moment I was clearly pregnant, I was done. You’re a mother, and you’re something else. It really is the division of the woman in parts.”
“Also, and I experienced this when I was pregnant, mothers aren’t sexy,” she continues. “It’s a completely different category. When I was first pregnant, but not showing, I was seen as a hot young girl. From the moment I was clearly pregnant, I was done. You’re a mother, and you’re something else. It really is the division of the woman in parts.”
Mère sets out a more female-first perspective. In the same way, Scheurweghs’ current exhibition, Birth of a Mother – on show at Mu.ZEE in Ostend until 02 January 2022 – features her images of other women’s pregnancies, births and early motherhood. She hopes that both projects empower, showing the strength of female bodies and “honour what women can do”. It is the kind of imagery that helped her when she was pregnant, she says, when she was fearful of her impending labour and seeking out more positive examples.
“I was looking at natural births, calm births, orgasmic births,” she says. “Unfortunately I didn’t have an orgasmic birth! But looking at those visuals helped. If you see what women can do in giving birth and raising kids, I think we’re very strong human beings. But we often take ourselves for granted, especially in a male-dominated world.”
Diane Smyth is a freelance journalist who contributes to publications such as The Guardian, The Observer, The FT Weekend Magazine, Creative Review, The Calvert Journal, Aperture, FOAM, IMA, Aesthetica and Apollo Magazine. Prior to going freelance, she wrote and edited at BJP for 15 years. She has also curated exhibitions for institutions such as The Photographers Gallery and Lianzhou Foto Festival. You can follow her on instagram @dismy