Rineke Dijkstra: Afterbirth



 "For me, it is essential to understand that everyone is alone. Not in the sense of loneliness, but rather in the sense that no one can completely understand someone else. I want to awaken definite sympathies for the person I have photographed." – Rineke Dijsktra



The boys took me to the San Francisco MOMA for Mother's Day. It was basically my Mother's Day present because it cost like $40 to get in (yes, I think they should have an event called 'MOMA MAMA' every year, on the second Sunday in May, when mothers get in free, but they don't). We went to see the Mark Bradford exhibit, which was awesome and made me want to screw everything and just do art. Looking at his piece Strawberry, made out of found objects including permanent-wave end papers, the thought crossed my mind that this [making art] is the only thing that matters.

Strawberry, Mark Bradford.
Photomechanical reproductions, acrylic gel medium, permanent-wave end papers, and additional mixed media on canvas

72 x 84 inches
Collection of Barbara and Bruce Berger
Photo: Bruce M. White

But of course it's not, and Sweet Baby James brought me back to reality by demanding to nurse, run around, and invoke the wrath of the fourth floor museum guards. I got his papa to take him up to the rooftop patio – where he ran around and moved a one-tonne metal sculpture a few inches and invoked the wrath of the museum guard up there. But it gave me a few minutes to soak up the Bradford, after which I cheated and poked my head into the Rineke Dijkstra retrospective.

Dijkstra is a Dutch photographer who has been taking photos for longer than I've been alive. Her work has been described as a cross between August Sander and Diane Arbus. She's interested in social typology and people in transition. Some of her work seems really boring to me, but that's probably because it's been ripped off by Calvin Klein, Benetton, and American Apparel ads for the last 15 years. They're the kind of photographs where the person being photographed is supposed to have been caught off guard a little bit. Naked-faced, emotion-laced. You know what I'm talking about...


kate moss by richard avedon for calvin klein “ck be” ad campaign, 1997


Usually, the emotion is sadness or self-disgust (is this what's lurking under the surface of most of us, most of the time?), and often the person is actually naked (especially in American Apparel ads, but you can google that yourself) and so they scream of vulnerability. Some people call this 'empathy'. I call it 'voyeurism'. Whatevs.

Anyway, she has some photos of post-birth mothers. They're large, almost life-sized. The women are completely nude and photographed holding their newborns. Here are some of them.

Tecla, Amsterdam, Netherlands, May 16, 1994

Julie, Den Haag, Netherlands, February 29, 1994

Saskia, Harderwijk, Netherlands, March 16, 1994

Pretty powerful stuff. My first thought was why are they standing up? Sure they're looking pretty sturdy on their own two feet, but shouldn't they be relaxing somewhere, not having their portrait taken for my viewing pleasure?

The answer is in the clogs. The Netherlands has the highest homebirth rate in the world (30%), and only 10% of births make use of pain medication. If the birth takes place in a hospital, mothers are usually sent home within the day – with a kraamzorg, which is basically a post-partum doula who stays with the family for at least a week and is named after a Star Trek character. You know, just to help out and all. According to my midwife, Dutch mothers don't express worries or fear about the birth experience, at least not at their prenatal visits. Birth is seen as a normal, healthy part of life.

I don't need to outline the contrast of America for you. We are so scared of birth. We have 0 support before, during, and after. We don't really have much contact with it until we're doing it ourselves, but we all know the script: the sports coach doctor shouts at you to push and you scream in agony until you beg for meds and the archangel doctor gives them to you, you weak, crazy woman.

 Like our idea of the travails birth entails, beliefs about appropriate activity levels after birth are also culturally constructed. In Birth: The Surprising History of How We Are Born, Tina Cassidy writes about the old American/British idea that women should take to their beds for two weeks after birth, a recommendation that's been steadily shortened over the last 50 years to a two-day hospital stay (coinciding, now that I think about it, with the entrance of women into the workforce, hello capitalism).

So I guess this is why the women in Dijkstra's photos are standing. Unlike American mothers, who have been through hell and understandably need a little break, these Dutch mamas have been through a birth experience. Even Tecla, who has blood dripping down her leg, and Saskia, who's just had a C-section. And guess what? Women who are more active after birth have a lowered risk of blood clots.

I'm not saying we should all get up and run a marathon after birth. Just that the constant depiction of post-birth American mothers as depleted invalids is part of our idea that birth is the worst thing ever. Frightening. Gross. A medical event to be performed under a bright light, legs in stirrups on a hospital bed.

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