pregnancy

The first breath. The first touch. The first cry. The first hello.

The First Hello Project is a collaboration of Sydney birth photographers, Bel Pangburn and River Bennett.

Styling themselves as, “The first breath. The first touch. The first cry. The first hello,” – Bel and Riv document birth stories.

They have one of the most beautiful Instagram accounts we’ve seen, where they share a selection of photos from their shoots.

Bel and Riv open up a window into the world of labour and birth, depicting these moments poignantly but with great honesty. They don’t romanticise birth; rather they show what is often a private moment that we rarely see with a realistic beauty.

What’s the project? Who is behind it?

Riv: The friendship between Bel and I has developed over a shared love of the arts, and in particular, all things photography.

Bel is a freelance photographer and runs her own business called Trigger Happy Images. I am a freelance photographer and writer with my own website called The Wolf Pack Mrs – a site for mamas with messy hair and thirsty hearts.

The First Hello Project grew out of a crazy conversation Bel and I had one day. We had been sharing some fun stories over our bucket list moments that we as photographers had the opportunity to be a part of.

I told Bel how I would love to shoot a birth one day and she told me she had captured her friend and sister’s births and how insane it was. It wasn’t long after our conversation that I was approached by a couple to capture their birth journey. Of course I said yes! And immediately after I left the hospital delivery room on that occasion I rang Bel on a high. We kept saying how incredible it was to document that birth moment for a couple. We loved how it released the husband to be present for his wife during the birth process, and not have to be caught up in taking photos himself. We talked about how incredible it was to capture that once-in-a-lifetime opportunity when a parent meets their child for the first time.

So one night over a glass of wine, on my couch, we started talking about the possibility of starting a business in birth photography. We took a few days to find a name and finally it dropped “The First Hello Project – The first breath. The first touch. The first cry. The first hello.”

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And so, together Bel and I have had the privilege of documenting some of the most incredible moments of raw emotion in birthing suites and homes around the world. We love what we get to do and more than anything we love that we get to celebrate life.

What were your birth experiences like?

Bel: We are both mothers. River has three boys, Zion 10, Rome 7 and Knox 5 and I have a daughter who is 2 years old.

Riv: My first birth experience was a bit traumatic to be honest. Ha. I had severe high blood pressure (pre-eclampsia) which meant Zion was born prematurely at 30 weeks. I had been in hospital for a few days until one night they were scared I was about to have a stroke. They quickly wheeled me down to emergency and put me under general anaesthetic ready for a C section. I was then in intensive care for a couple of days until my blood pressure came down. Zion was also in intensive care because he was so tiny but he fed by himself at 34 weeks and was doing so well that we were allowed to take him home after three weeks. It was a crazy season but we got through it and I’m grateful every day that he is with us!

The other two boys came by C-sections also, with no complications so that was a huge relief.

Bel: My birth experience was healthy, quite smooth, painful (duh!) and probably one of the most empowering journeys of my life. It was fairly quick for a first birth — six hours in active labour, 30 mins pushing. I’ll never forget how overwhelming and involuntary that feeling is to push! I never realised how clever my body was. And meeting my baby girl for the first time… THERE’S NOTHING LIKE IT! Heaven.

What has been your most memorable photo shoot?

Just about every family we have captured has been memorable because there are no scripts, no posing, just intense emotion – but we did have one not long ago where the baby was born “en caul” – meaning the baby was born in the amniotic sac which hadn’t broken yet. It’s a 1 in 80,000 chance to see it. It was beyond amazing.

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What do parents do with the photos you take? Do they frame them and put them on the wall, or do they tend to keep them as private mementos of a private moment?

Our clients are all different. Some are really private and want to keep images for private viewing only, and others post on social media and order prints to frame to make sure family and friends especially grandparents can enjoy them too. We just love that we can give them something not many people can.

Are all births beautiful?

You know, we often get asked why we do what we do and almost always get asked about “that shot” – you know, the one that makes most people shudder as the baby is coming out of the uterus. But we are quick to respond that most people don’t want that shot (unless requested). It’s highly graphic and can actually be a bit traumatic for people.

The thing is, there is so much emotion in the room. There is nothing staged or posed just raw human emotion and capturing that is what we are passionate about.

We both have been known to shed a little tear of happiness once the baby is born. There is nothing quite like seeing a baby being born. It never leaves you and we often walk away feeling so privileged to have witnessed it. Life is so precious.

What other human experiences do you think photography can help to unlock?

Riv: For me, l have always been obsessed with finding ways to make a visual image as powerful as a song. You know how a song can take you back to a certain time or place in your life and stir up the emotions of that moment? It’s so powerful and I believe photography has the power to do the same.

Bel: I believe photography can unlock the human heart, we as creatives need to be brave enough to step into those intimate spaces that some may shy away from and capture it. The world needs images that will set hearts on fire more than ever.

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