Alice Proujansky photographed her first birth when she was seven years old. “My parents gave me this little point-and-shoot camera that I photographed my sister’s birth with,” she says. “It was the first person I ever photographed.”
Now, Proujansky is a documentary photographer photographing stories of births and maternal health. When COVID-19 first hit New York City, where she lives, Proujansky wanted to capture birth during a pandemic. But in March and April 2020, hospitals and birth centers were restricting who was allowed to be in the delivery room with someone giving birth — for a short time, some New York City hospitals were barring everyone, even partners, and asking people to deliver alone.
Shut out of delivery rooms, Proujansky decided to approach the story in another way. Her project, titled “Born in a Pandemic,” included portraits of people in the last few weeks of their pregnancies and just after they gave birth. “Both pregnancy and also the pandemic are just really interesting in the ways that they point to inequities and pressures in society, and the way our culture approaches reproduction and women,” Proujansky says.
The following conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.
How did this project start?
For me, the pandemic started when the schools closed. I have two kids. It all happened really quickly. First, there was this thing happening, and we were wondering if we needed to keep our kids home. And over the weekend, that decision was made for us. It was clear this was a big deal. I’m a freelance photographer and a teaching artist, and everything was canceled. I lost around $5,000 worth of gigs in a week, and I thought, “Is my career over? Is the world over?”
I started taking photos because I needed to. I was photographing the experience of parenting in the pandemic, and then I started doing these portraits. I wasn’t thinking about where they would go, but I just really needed to articulate something about what was happening.
I had my first contact with Jailyn Ortiz, who was the first person I photographed, in May. Going to photograph her was so strange. I drove into the city and parked in Times Square, which I’ve never done in my life, and it was completely empty. It really had that apocalyptic feeling.
Did capturing pregnancy and newborns feel different during the pandemic than it usually does? How did your relationship with those subjects change?
In one way, it was really reassuring to know that these things continue. And I also felt this kinship with the people who were pregnant and had newborns. The experience of having a baby is sort of similar to the experience of quarantine, in a strange way. Time feels very slippery and sticky. It also felt like a very animal experience. The pandemic made us realize we’re very animal, we’re very vulnerable, and I had the same experience having a newborn.
You started this project in May and continued to take pictures of pregnancy and birth through 2020 — both for this project and for others. How did things change for pregnant people over the course of the year?
You have someone like Jailyn, who was pregnant and looking forward to her birth plan. And then it’s May, and the whole world changed. At the beginning, some people weren’t even able to have family in the room when they delivered. Then, the people I was meeting toward the end had most of their pregnancies take place during the pandemic. Starting in December, the first babies were born where the entire pregnancy was during these really strange circumstances.
How were each of their experiences different?
With Jailyn back in May, we were outside, six feet apart, with masks on, and I didn’t go anywhere near her. But we were nervous — was that safe? Then she had a newborn, and I wanted to take some follow-up pictures, but she wasn’t comfortable even taking the baby outside. There was that feeling of constant fear.
Then, by the time I photographed my sister-in-law, Heather, her main concern was that my brother wasn’t going to be able to be in the room with her because she was due not long after the rules had changed.
And Sarit, she is a midwife in a rural hospital with severe PPE shortages. She was a frontline medical worker, and no one really knew what would happen if she contracted COVID-19 while she was pregnant. She was able to keep her baby and her two other children safe throughout the entire pandemic.
The pandemic was never going to affect everyone equally, and that was clear from the people I photographed and spoke to. I heard from a mom who was white who had a positive COVID-19 test while she was in labor — it was frightening, but she was able to hold her baby, and it wasn’t that bad of an experience. Another mom who was Black had her baby taken away. She felt that the nurses were not checking on her. It’s hard to attribute this to one thing, and I don’t have data, but people of color have been vastly more impacted by this pandemic, and it shows up in maternal health.
What has it been like for the people you photograph to have a baby at such a physically isolating time?
I have two children, and my postpartum experience was that it made such a difference whether I had people taking care of me or not. It made a huge difference when people would come by and drop off food or if I could see someone with a newborn the same age and talk about the minutiae of that particular week. That connection was really important.
Right now, a lot of people are unable to get child care for their older children. They’re unable to have friends or parents or relatives drop by. Having a newborn is already kind of an isolating experience. It’s a really big mental shift to become a parent for the first time or become a parent of an additional child. You really need people around you.