Naked Exposure

Photography inherently pries and inquires. It seeks out the corners of the human experience, and carves a shallow bed wherever it pleases. There aren’t many places that I’d never been with a camera.

But there was one.

It was a strange thing for someone to photograph. The thought of it feels inappropriate, almost insensitive. I had no qualms about following my camera into an emergency room, or leading it into the hallways of a twisted nightclub, or the empty streets in a bad part of the city. I didn’t understand how different this might be until after I experienced it. This, this was different.

Time had bestowed upon me nearly every kind of photography experience: Weddings, funerals, birthdays, graduations, retirements, reunions, presentations and performances. After pouring thousands of photographs into my computer, I wore my experience humbly, like a blanket covering my last shred of naked insecurity.

So I immediately acquiesced when Madison asked me to photograph her at the end of the nine long months.

“Yeah, I can definitely do that,” I said, confident and unwavering in my certainty.

I’d never been present at a birth. My mother never had any children after me, and until I met Madison, no one in my close circle of friends had ever been pregnant for very long. I knew what it was like though — I’d seen pictures and video and heard plenty of stories about what it was like to push another human out of your own body.

I tried to wrap my mind around the idea of what it might be like to invent another human being, the same way a painter crafts a painting or a composer threads a symphony together, note by note.

Madison’s due date approached, and I began keeping my car fueled, my cell phone charged, and my camera by my bedside table. A distorted anticipation rose in my mind. I had that feeling you get right before Christmas, mixed with the enduring dread that precedes having a tooth pulled.

I studied birth photography, and tried to acclimate myself to the idea of photographing something so intimate as the creation of another human being. My eyes grew tired of seeing grimacing women and supportive husbands, young, wet flesh, exposed thighs and swollen bodies, but I trained myself to be comfortable with the raw intimacy.

My phone rang at 3:30 a.m. Twelve minutes later, I rushed into the maternity unit at Westdale Hospital.

Nobody tells you what birth sounds like. Nobody tells you what birth smells like. I tried to focus both my camera, and my attention, but my concentration fled the room and viciously slipped away. I pressed my face against the viewfinder and snapped half a dozen pictures — blurry and dark, marred with flashes of exposed flesh. I followed my concentration right out of the room.

I walked slowly to the bathroom, dazed and completely overcome.

“Get up. Oh, god. Get up. What’s wrong with you?” I heard myself whisper.

But my body rejected my demands, and I sat down in a stall. I shut my eyes, until I decided that the only way to cleanse my mind was to keep them open.

I pulled my pants off and looked at my body and wondered how in the world anything like what I just saw could actually occur. The raw, visceral act of creation stung my mind like ice.

I looked at my camera, and then let it fall. It hit the bathroom tile with a frozen mechanical crash, and the lens shattered.

I stood and clothed myself and returned to the room, where Madison held her newborn in her arms. Sweat drenched her naked skin, but she smiled through the thick layer of exhaustion. Her husband wrapped his hands around her shoulders and watched as Madison studied her life for the first time.

Photography inherently pries and inquires. It seeks out the corners of the human experience, and carves a shallow bed wherever it pleases. There aren’t many places that I’d never been with a camera.

But there was one.