From birthdays to weddings, most of life’s milestone events are best enjoyed in the company of friends. Childbirth, on the other hand, is a different matter – as Swedish photographer Lina Scheynius discovered when approaching her friends on the subject. "My sister is a midwife and had always talked a lot about her work to me, which made me really curious," Scheynius explains over the phone from her London home. "So a while back I asked quite a few of my friends who were pregnant – and my sister too actually – 'Can I be there?' but they all said no. So I gave up on the idea."
In late 2017, however, Scheynius’ best friend Amanda became pregnant, and the opportunity to photograph a birth finally presented itself. "I was a bit hesitant to ask her," Scheynius recalls. "It took me two months, but when I did she said that she had been thinking about it too!" The result is a beautiful new photo book filled with images of Amanda in the days leading up to the birth, as well as the arrival of her baby daughter, Ruby, on 22nd May 2018.
Scheynius, a former model, met Amanda in London many years ago. "We were models at the same agency," she explains. "My agent introduced us because we were both Swedish, and we immediately got on." But it wasn’t until years later, when they took the Trans-Siberian Railway together in China, that the two really bonded. "You’re in this little box together for seven days, so it could go either way," the photographer laughs. It was then that Scheynius, celebrated for her highly personal, diaristic approach to image-making, first began photographing her friend. Amanda has appeared frequently in her work since.
Even so, the idea that Scheynius should be present at one of the most intimate events of Amanda’s life was new territory for the friends and they spent a long time discussing the nuances of the project before deciding to go ahead with it. "We set out some guidelines," Scheynius says. "Like whichever works I was going to show, whatever I was going to do with the pictures, I needed to ask Amanda first. She knew she wanted me in the room for the birth – she’s one of those people who loves family albums, and having documentation of everything that she does – but another rule was that she could ask me to leave at any moment. That seemed obvious to me, but it was important to her that we wrote it down."
Amanda decided to have the baby in Sweden and spent the final month before the birth at her parents’ house in the countryside. Scheynius also relocated to her parents’ house, almost two hours away from Amanda’s, in preparation for the big event. "I was actually there for three weeks in the end because the baby was late," the photographer says with a chuckle. She visited Amanda during this time, resulting in some of the book’s most idyllic imagery, which showcases Scheynius’ knack for photographing nature and her mesmerising command of natural light. We see Amanda frolicking freely outdoors, unhampered by clothing. Her pregnant body is in full bloom, like the blossom of the surrounding trees. Her bump protrudes pleasingly above the surface of the sea as she floats on her back, the very picture of tranquillity.
These images, taken just 10 days before Ruby’s arrival, offer a distinct contrast to many of the book’s other photographs. Scheynius’ aim, she says, was to capture the full spectrum of emotions and moods that accompany pregnancy’s final stages – "There’s so much love, hope and joy," she notes, "but there’s also anxiety and horrific pain" – and she does so to powerful effect. The remaining pictures were captured in the two days leading up to the delivery and during the labour itself. "I had gone back to my parents’ house and I had to have my phone on constantly because the baby could come any second," Scheynius remembers. "I got a message from Amanda at about two in the morning one day saying she was going to the hospital. My sister drove me there in the middle of the night – I don’t have a driver’s licence – but when we arrived, the doctors said Amanda had to go home."
One of the things that most surprised Scheynius was the amount of waiting that labour entails. "I really learned how much of it is a form of anticipation: waiting for the body to open up, to be ready to push. I was probably misinformed by cinema, where a woman’s waters suddenly break somewhere random and she starts pushing soon after!" The photographer captures this drawn-out process with subtle nuance – we see Amanda taking a bath, looking surprisingly relaxed beneath the bubbles; we see her filling a hot water bottle, and later using it to soothe her back. In one shot she sits patiently at the kitchen table, bathed in lamplight; in another she lies awkwardly on her sofa, her face contorted in pain.
Scheynius’ memory of the delivery is hazy. "It felt really long, and all my senses were heightened," she says. Her role was threefold, she explains: photographer, coffee fetcher and translator. "Amanda’s husband is English so I did a lot of explaining to him about what was going on. Actually very little of it was taking pictures!" The photographs she did take are remarkably intimate and visceral: Amanda on her knees on the hospital bed; her husband’s hand clasping her head; the baby’s own head finally emerging ("I think I was right in there, it wasn’t a zoom!" says Scheynius); bloody gauze and scarlet placenta; the moving moment when Amanda first holds her newborn daughter. "I love that one – Amanda and Ruby meeting for the first time. Amanda has some tears on her cheeks. I cried when I saw it."
After the birth, Scheynius took a train home, having been awake for two days straight. "I was so happy, I couldn’t sleep. My mum was like, 'Oh my god you’ve got the same rush of hormones a mother gets after giving birth!'" Both Scheynius and Amanda are very glad of their decision to document this special journey together. "I always ask Amanda to look over my books before they go to print because I really trust her eye, but this one was a real collaboration. I’m really happy with the shape it’s taken because it feels true to what I experienced and witnessed, and Amanda’s going to give copies to all her relatives, so I think she’s pleased too," Scheynius laughs.