Dylan in the spotlight

Dylan, 12 hours old in Southmead Hospital, Bristol
Dylan, 12 hours old in Southmead Hospital, Bristol

One Born Every Minute, Channel 4, 9pm, 10th March.

I find myself emerging from maternity leave with both a work hat and a mum hat on at the same time. In the public sphere of TV and online debate around this programme, I’ll be considering the spirituality of birth, with an eye to producing new work later in the year – see the Twitter and Facebook feeds in the adjacent column. Perhaps it’s inevitable that the reflections and ideas I had during pregnancy should gestate and form their own distinctive project (see posts on my scan and Hirst’s Verity), now to be realised as part of a commission from the Birth Rites Collection. From the press release:

Visual artist Sheona Beaumont became a mum for the second time in September 2013, and was filmed at Southmead Hospital, Bristol, for Channel 4’s One Born Every Minute. As part of the Birth Online: Birth Offline project, she will be making new photographic work about her experience, and about the place for a spiritual expression of birth in such a public domain.

Central to the process of making this work will be the response on social media during and after the episode in which she and her husband, a curate in the Church of England, feature on the 10th of March 2014. As an interactive live event, watched by millions, this documented conversation will form an integral part of the lenticular prints she intends to produce.

Beaumont’s perspective of faith brings a deeper reflection to birth and motherhood, which, far from being incompatible with the hospital environment or watching cameras, finds a place for praying the Bible, collective involvement, and even the virtual equivalent of a rite such as ‘The Churching of Women’, once well-known in the Anglican tradition. If ceremonies around birth have largely been lost in our medicalised Western culture today, it is nevertheless true that it remains a profoundly transforming moment for women where the extraordinarily miraculous meets the visceral intensity of bodily labour. To the extent that One Born Every Minute celebrates that moment as part of the story and background of the individuals, producers focussed on the importance of the Christian faith Beaumont shares with her husband, alongside and within the medical and relational approaches of the programme. Editing (One Born Every Minute) remained the full responsibility of Dragonfly Film & TV Productions.

The shock of the new

Baby Beaumont the Second
Baby Beaumont the Second

It feels slightly odd marking this post in my ‘research’ category, but the photograph is such a departure point for so many thoughts, that I can’t help but mull it over:

  • Up to the point of climbing on the hospital bed for the first scan, the knowledge of pregnancy is somewhere between an abstract mark on a test stick and the lurching bodily reminders of a sea-change happening somewhere underneath. Plus it’s a knowledge contained from the majority of others. So it’s almost a form of not knowing, or a knowing that refuses to declare itself outright. It’s a knowing without language.
  • The only connecting line is offered in the first midwife appointment, when you get the glowing yellow book – yes, here is a text, a language that seems to offer some proof. But it’s a text in code. With numbers and acronyms for so many statistics and states. The marking out of a programme of appointments and tests says that this is, and will be, about lines, results, dates, charts. My head finds it reassuring, because it seems like a solid, sensible construction around that first state of not knowing.
  • But the second the picture grain solidifies into a foetus shape, as the ultrasound scanner presses onto my skin, my heart comes crashing into the room. It really is the shock of the new. And the grain moves where the baby’s heartbeat pulses away. Life turns out to be uncontained by the half-knowing of early pregnancy and also uncontained by the NHS-knowing of monitored states. More than that, it breaks out through an image – a pattern of black and white that seems to need tuning to be revealed, and then BANG! it’s there.
  • It’s such an important image – important for the potency it has for the mum. It makes an internal thing externally present and real. And that real thing hinges on having the inner, ongoing connection with my body. It’s about seeing, and being the seer, in the prophetic sense of making visible what isn’t yet. It’s surely that spark of a punctum which Barthes talks about – a kind of puncture in space and time. To others, it probably doesn’t have that jolt, though it is usually received as celebratory – an image with some magic and wonder.
  • Finally, there’s the filling-in language around the image you take home. On the precious scrap of paper, something is slightly lost from the first experience of seeing a shape appear. But there’s that reassuring medical speak again, at the edges of the frame, counting, dotting, testifying that you are the bearer, you are the inscriber. The bearing of an image has so much resonance here – resemblance, heritage, gift, God-in-humanity. A bigger picture, as Hockney might say.