Visual Culture

These Photographs Capture the Joy and Pain of Pregnancy

Alexxa Gotthardt
May 11, 2018 9:20PM

Disclaimer: Several of the images featured in this article are explicit in nature.

Those who haven’t gone through the epic experience of pregnancy tend to have an incomplete understanding of it. We hear about wild snack cravings, small bladders, swollen limbs—and the extreme, indescribable joy of a mother holding her new baby for the first time. Less often, we’re told of the blinding pain of childbirth itself, or the numbing shock of a miscarriage.

Artists have long made the physical and emotional vicissitudes of pregnancy and birth the subject of their work. Below, we highlight images that harness the discomfort, uncertainty, self-discovery, and pride that come with the process of becoming a mother.

Sally Mann, Untitled, from the “At Twelve” series (1988)

Sally Mann, Untitled from the “At Twelve” Series (Page 46). © Sally Mann. Courtesy of Jackson Fine Art.

While Sally Mann’s work is most often highlighted for its controversial portrayal of children and adolescents, her practice could also be described as a persistent exploration of motherhood. She has photographed her children extensively, most famously in the series “Immediate Family” (1984–91), which highlights the vulnerability of their young bodies.

Here, Mann turns her lens towards another mother, shown in profile with her pregnant stomach protruding far beyond the white underwear that bunches around her hips. Meanwhile, she is embraced by her 12-year-old daughter, who stares directly at the camera. As the mother prepares to bring a new life into the world, her older child is captured on the cusp of puberty. The image hints at the physical bond between mother and child, as well as the relationship between fertility and the female body.

Carmen Winant, My Birth (2018)


Carmen Winant was pregnant with her second child as she made My Birth, a sprawling installation of 2,000 images depicting women in the throes of late pregnancy, birth, and its immediate aftermath. (It’s currently a stand-out of the Museum of Modern Art’s “New Photography” exhibition.) One found photograph shows an expectant mother screaming in pain as she pushes; in another, a woman cries as she admires the tiny, writhing body that’s just emerged from between her legs.

Winant sourced the photos from books, pamphlets, and magazines from the 1970s that were “designed to give women information about their bodies, with the understanding that said information is power,” she’s explained. Together, the astounding array of images points to the collective process of birth, and to how physically and emotionally unique it is for each mother. “This could be a shared narrative that both collapses time and also…points to the difference between kinds of experience,” Winant has said.

Heji Shin, “Baby” (2016)

For those who haven’t experienced it firsthand, the birthing process can seem surreal: both magical and frightening. For those women who have, however, it is visceral, painful, and firmly rooted in personal experience. Heji Shin manages to harness both of these impressions in her images of babies as they inch slowly and gooily into the world. In one, a little blue head pushes from a dark vulva, looking more alien than human. Across the seven photos in this series, Shin spotlights intimate, physically painful moments that are rarely seen beyond hospitals and rooms that host home births. Simultaneously, she hints at why this might be: our fear of the human body’s messiness.

Nan Goldin, Ectopic Pregnancy Scar (1980)

Nan Goldin, Ectopic pregnancy scar, NYC, 1980. ©​ Nan Goldin. Courtesy of Matthew Marks Gallery.

During the 1980s, Nan Goldin documented the vertiginous highs and lows of her own life and that of her downtown New York community. She presented roughly 700 of these images as The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, a slideshow and Artist’s book that reads like an intimate, no-holds-barred diary. “The diary is my form of control over my life,” she’s written. “It allows me to obsessively record every detail. It enables me to remember.”

This image is one of several from a subset of The Ballad called “Sweet Blood Call,” which catalogs the scarred or battered bodies of Goldin and her female friends. Here, Goldin’s bright flash spotlights the subject’s exposed genitals and a jagged scar across her abdomen. The mark was the result of a surgery related to an ectopic pregnancy, an unviable pregnancy that can cause life-threatening infections for the mother. Like many of Goldin’s photographs, the image conveys both extreme vulnerability and resilience.

Mary Ellen Mark, Tiny, pregnant, Seattle (1985)

Mary Ellen Mark met Tiny, a 13-year-old crack-addicted prostitute, in 1983. At the time, Tiny was living on the streets of Seattle and turning tricks to support her drug habit. Two years later, she was pregnant with her first child, Daylon. This image shows Tiny lying listlessly on a dirty mattress, her small, young body bulging incongruously with pregnancy. The photograph is one of the most recognizable from Mark’s famed series “Streetwise,” documenting the harsh realities experienced by street kids in 1980s Seattle. It is also one of countless images Mark took of Tiny across three decades. In these photos, we see Tiny struggle with addiction; teenage motherhood; getting clean; and adjusting to a quieter, more stable life, where her focus is raising her 10 children.

Manjari Sharma and Irina Rozovsky, from “Talking Pictures” (2016–17)

Over five months between 2016 and 2017, Manjari Sharma and Irina Rozovsky engaged in a call-and-response project, sharing photos taken on their iPhones. (The project was commissioned by the Metropolitan Museum of Art for the exhibition “Talking Pictures,” in which a curator commissioned camera-phone conversations between duos of artists.) During this visual exchange, they discovered they were both pregnant—with due dates just three weeks apart. The resulting images show glimpses of their daily lives (a trip to the Women’s March; food strewn across a kitchen table) as well as the realities of pregnancy (growing bodies; doctor visits).

In response to an image from Rozovsky, in which her forehead peeks out from behind a swollen belly, Sharma sent a snapshot of her own taut stomach, next to a watermelon for scale. Later, we see Rozovsky’s blurry ultrasound; Sharma’s bloody placenta; dark images of hospital rooms; and, finally, each photographer holding brand-new babies tightly to their bodies.

Awol Erizku, Beyonce (2017)

Awol Erizku, Beyoncé, 2017. Photo via Beyoncé's Instagram.

When pop queen Beyonce announced her pregnancy (with twins), she did so with an image that nearly broke the internet; it remains Instagram’s most-liked post of 2017. The portrait was taken by Los Angeles-based photographer Awol Erizku, who reimagines historical and canonical artworks by placing black luminaries in the place of white gods, conquerors, and kings. Here, he situates the contemporary music icon in a scene that recalls Renaissance depictions of the Virgin Mary, like Piero della Francesca’s Madonna del Parto (c. 1460). Instead of thick robes and veils, however, Beyonce wears sheer, ruffled lingerie that celebrates—rather than obscures—the sensuousness of her body and its changing form. The image subtly suggests that, in many ways, all mothers deserve the reverence of celebrities.

Alexxa Gotthardt