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Please note: RPS House is closed for our exhibition install. We will be open again from 10am on Friday 9th August 2024.

Alanya & Casper

Pregnancy and birth during the pandemic

When James Clifford Kent shared a picture of his wife and newborn baby taken soon after birth, the response was a global one. And so the series Pregnant in a Pandemic was born

‘Alanya and Casper, London, 2021’

The birth of a child at any time can feel momentous, but the Covid-19 pandemic has made it especially challenging. Beyond the usual anxiety and elation experienced by pregnant and new mothers, feelings of isolation and fear can be part of the mix. 

Among the 613,936 live births in England and Wales during 2020 was the daughter of Dr James Clifford Kent, a London-based documentary and portrait photographer, and his wife Charley.

Kent had photographed Charley’s first moments of exhausted postpartum relief as she and her baby were comforted by their midwife. After posting the image on social media, Kent was astounded at the response as women from across the world shared their stories of pregnancy and birth in the shadow of Covid-19.

The photographer, who lectures on visual culture at Royal Holloway, University of London, began working on the project Pregnant in a Pandemic. The series involves portraits of new and expectant parents living in London, and is accompanied by “testimonies of love, loss and survival in the face of adversity”.

Kent received international attention for the series and in December 2021 was awarded one of the Lancet medical journal’s annual photography prizes for work from the project.

Here, he explains why he wanted to give expectant and new mothers a voice as the pandemic rolled on.

Charley, The Baby & The Midwife

‘Charley, the baby and the midwife, London, 2020’ 

What inspired your series Pregnant in a Pandemic?

I first developed ideas for a personal project on pregnancy, birth and parenthood in late 2019, after discovering my wife was expecting our first child.

While researching these themes, a friend recommended W Eugene Smith’s Nurse Midwife – a seminal series of images published in LIFE magazine in 1951. The photo essay documents the work of Maude Callen, a 51-year-old African American midwife working in rural South Carolina. It soon became one of the main points of reference for the project.

As the pandemic took hold I began to focus on its impact on our own experience. Due to restrictions on birth partners, I almost missed our daughter’s birth. Charley had laboured alone through the night and delivered our baby on the antenatal ward at 7.33am. I took a photo of our midwife embracing her and this was later shared widely online. I then received hundreds of messages from people around the world who wanted to tell their story and the Pregnant in a Pandemic project was born.

Bisma & Azlan

‘Bisma and Azlan, London, 2021’ 

How did the reaction to your Instagram image affect you and your wife, Charley?

The response was incredible and the photograph really charged the project. One woman told me how she felt she had “given birth to a secret baby, behind closed doors” and many shared this view. I felt strongly about using photography to ensure all these voices were heard. At the same time, developing the project meant forging bonds with the people involved. Some have become close friends during an incredibly isolating time when there was no access to the 'village' of support typically available to new and expectant parents.

You were contacted by expectant and new mothers who shared their experiences of pregnancy during the pandemic. Why do you think they were happy to share such personal and intimate experiences?

The pandemic made everything more challenging for everyone – bringing a baby into the world was no exception. An overstretched national healthcare system, lack of access to ordinarily routine care and hospital restrictions on birth partners have all impacted prospective parents during this time. People involved with the project are passionate about creating a visual record of this shared experience and raising awareness about ongoing challenges to help drive change and necessary improvements to maternity services in the future.

Emily & Cleo

‘Emily and Cleo, London, 2021’

Your series reflects the difficulties of pregnancy and birth during a pandemic. What has been the reaction to your series from the public?

The project has received support from healthcare professionals and the public. People recognise the importance of focusing on the topic and portraiture represents a powerful way of documenting people’s experiences. The women featured have shown incredible resilience and their stories have captured the media’s attention.

How difficult has it been to photograph the series during Covid-19 lockdowns and government restrictions?

I began developing the project as the world came to a standstill. My first encounters with new and expectant parents felt tense and emotionally charged. It was hard to know whether this was due to Covid-19 or because many of us were getting to grips with becoming parents, often for the first time. These were new experiences for all of us. I made the decision to focus on London-based families due to social and travel restrictions. Many of the photographs for the project were taken in the outdoor spaces frequented by people during the lockdown. All these factors impacted the shape and feel of the series physically and aesthetically.

Izzy – 22 Weeks

‘Izzy, London, 2021’

What next?

I’m interested in exploring the way photos and stories are absorbed by different audiences and how they might move them to action. I’ve had the privilege of bearing witness to people’s extraordinary experiences during the pandemic. As a result, my practice has developed in a way I hadn’t previously imagined. Working on this series has allowed me to rethink my practice and make connections across the visual arts, health and wellbeing. I have been collaborating with the Babylab at the University of Cambridge, and will be showcasing work from the project at Cambridge Festival in 2022. My aim is to produce work for public collections, publish a photobook on the series and exhibit work exploring these themes in 2022-2023.

Nadine & Marnie

Nadine and Marnie,  London, 2021 

All pictures by Dr James Clifford Kent

Instagram: @jamescliffordkent


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