Black American women are 3 to 4 times more likely to die from pregnancy-related causes than white women. I’m using birth photography to change that.

Imagine hearing that you are three to four times more likely than the general population to get or do or become or end up with…Something. Of course, if the something is good (win the lottery, publish a bestseller, find your soul mate) you’d be ecstatic over such odds; yes, I suspect you’d be pretty pumped about that.

Let’s flip that outcome, and add: Given the particular color of your skin, you are three to four times more likely to die during pregnancy, childbirth, or in postpartum than any other female demographic in the United States. This is the stark reality for Black women in the United States.

Photo of black woman in labor with her family, by Chinelle Rojas

Black women are dying during an experience that should be joyous. Dying, it seems, because the quality of care for us in our present healthcare system is so shockingly inadequate as to appear actually biased. Many of us are still unaware that we may have better care options both inside, as well as outside the hospital setting.

“It’s basically a public health and human rights emergency because it’s been estimated that a significant portion of these deaths could be prevented,” said Dr. Ana Langer, director of the Women and Health Initiative at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in Boston.

“Basically, Black women are undervalued,” Langer told the American Heart Association. “They are not monitored as carefully as white women are. When they do present with symptoms, they are often dismissed.”

As a Black birth photographer, that both enrages and saddens me. And it made me reevaluate my role as a birth photographer, particularly one who gets to tell the stories of women and families who look like me. I am compelled to take part in a solution.

“Black women are dying during an experience that should be joyous.”

photo of a black woman in labor
Photo of a pregnant woman with her partner
Photo of a black woman in labor in a bathtub by Chinelle Rojas
Black woman in labor with nurses around her

I’ve found that the birth images I captured have a greater impact on the birth community as a whole than any set of tragic statistics. Late at night, when an expecting person of color, unable to find a comfortable position in her bed, happens to be scrolling through Instagram and sees a photo of someone who looks like her giving birth using methods she’d never considered, that moment has the potential to alter her story.

Each woman and each pregnancy is different. There is no one correct and perfect way to experience prenatal care, birth, and postpartum care for every woman. Because there are so many factors to weigh, it’s best to thoroughly research options and consider advice from trusted health professionals.

With a new purpose behind my work, my goal now is to spread awareness of those options and promote maternal health. What I share is so much bigger than just me, bigger even than my clients’ stories. I am so grateful for those who allow me to share a piece of their lives with the world to show others what is possible.

Black woman giving birth in a tub by Chinelle Rojas

As a birth photographer, I believe in this purpose so much that I created an Instagram page, @themelanatedbirth, featuring images and video of not only mine, but other birth photographers’ images as well.

Photo Project: how Black women who were enslaved gave birth

Last year, those grim statistics inspired me to find out more about how Black women who were enslaved in the United States birthed their babies. I remember learning about the places and conditions in which our ancestors had to give birth, and how their midwifery knowledge transcended the journey here and soon became sought after by enslavers.

I consulted Google for articles, but also for visual representation. Google failed me. The only image openly available was an illustration of James Marion Sims, the “father of modern gynecology” and torturer of black women, about to perform an experiment on a Black girl who was enslaved. Why was that the image I found in my search criterion, “slaves birthing”?

See a need, fill a need. From that came my project called, “Unto Us a Slave Is Born.” As a Black woman in the United States, I feel it’s important for us to see how capable we truly are, that we’ve been literally birthing naturally for hundreds of years, outside of the traditional, epidural-enhanced, hospital setting, and we have been living through it all.

I decided to use my art to leave a positive contribution to our society. I knew I could proclaim that truth through my art.

Slave birth project by Chinelle Rojas
Slave birth photography project by Chinelle Rojas

I was clear about the look and the feel I wanted. The hardest part was finding the location. No old shacks in my own area, but I happened upon a cool old public-access stone fort 5 minutes from where I live. I could make it work for me.

Next, my models. I have a beautiful client whose birth I’d photographed the month before; she loved my idea and volunteered herself and her newborn son as models. My doula friend introduced me to the model who played the midwife.

Up next, Goodwill and Amazon for vintage-looking, neutral fabrics, blankets, clothing, apron, nightgown for the birthing mother, and special-effects “blood.” Then I ripped and dirtied some of the items for a worn vibe. Because I’d taken the time to first sketch my vision, the shoot took maybe 15 minutes.

I’m proud to say that now when you do a Google image search for “slaves birthing,” you will find the photographs that I took, depicting the power of a Black woman giving birth back when her power was stripped from her. Right there at the top of the search results.

Slave birth photography project by Chinelle Rojas
Slave birth photography project by Chinelle Rojas
Slave birth photography project by Chinelle Rojas

Photos by Chinelle Rojas

This article first appeared in the September/October 2019 issue of Click Magazine. Buy the single issue here, or subscribe so you never miss a story like this.