Kate from Kate Kennedy Birth Photography

Kate Kennedy with four of her five kids: Maisy, Juliet, Eve and Aiden

Kate Kennedy with four of her five kids: Maisy, Juliet, Eve and Aiden

Photographer extraordinaire and mother-of-five, Kate Kennedy found a gap in the market and filled it, pronto. From the ground up, she has created a career that combines her two great passions, as Newcastle’s first and only birth photographer.

I’ve met a lot of cool people in my life, and I can honestly say that Kate is one of the most passionate about what she believes in. Her face lights up and glows when she’s talking about birth photography. We couldn’t help but collapse into tears of laughter when Kate started going into meticulous, graphic detail about a certain part of the birth process. The look on my face must’ve been one of horror mixed with wild confusion. “I don’t realise how I sound sometimes…” she admits. I reassure her that it’s okay, I will recover, and that I’ve never heard anybody talk so passionately about anything, let alone birth.

“It’s so important to have that knowledge of birth. The physiological process.  You have to have a keen understanding of exactly what’s going on at all times. You need to know when things are getting complicated and to step back, where to stand.” When Kate enters the hospital, she enters her role as a fly on the wall, barely saying a word unless, like in some cases, the mother reaches out to her for support during labour.

Kate started her business, Kate Kennedy Birth Photography, a few short years ago. Without any traditional marketing – completely word-of-mouth and social media – Kate is fully booked almost until the end of 2015. She’s already won three silver medals for each of her three images at the Australian Professional Photography Awards just last year. Kate’s achievements have seen her welcomed, with open arms, into the tight-knit, small community of birth photographers around the world. They have a private Facebook group to chat, share stories and offer advice – there’s no competition with these photographers.

With her fifth child, Eve, born at home and four previous “completely natural, drug-free births”, Kate is an advocate for combatting the stigma attached to home birthing. “We forget that we were designed to make babies. Over the years we’ve been conditioned to think we should go to hospital and have doctors deliver the baby. The World Health Organisation recommends a caesarean rate of 10-15%, and in Australia it’s 33%, which is nowhere near as high as some other countries. Women have been conditioned to believe it’s safer. There’s fear in women’s minds.”

"[On her first birth photography session…] I just loved it. I was absolutely buzzing the whole time I was in there. I walked out of there and said to Ben when I got home, ‘I can’t even think of a better day in my life. I want to do that every day forever.’ And he said, ‘Why don’t you just take photos of women having babies?"

We shared our voyeuristic interest in other peoples’ lives over a cheeky school-night wine. With five children between the ages of 3 and 18, I wonder how Kate has the time and space in her life to run a business, let alone be on-call. “I used to be so on edge all the time when I was on-call. Now I’ve become so used to it. I’ve always got my phone on me and I’m much more relaxed.”

Kate’s partner Ben is a local café-owner, leaving the house six mornings a week at 5am. They have a few babysitters to text in the middle of the night, but the rest of the time they wing it. “It’s ridiculously tricky. We need to refine that this year. Our kids are so cruisy, they don’t really care who’s looking after them as long as it’s someone who will play with them!” When Kate first decided she was going to give birth photography a red-hot go, she naturally wondered if they could pull it off but Ben reminded her they were in a good, flexible position to both be business owners. “I’ve held him to that a bit,” she laughs. They’re definitely pulling it off so far!

When did you first develop an interest in photography?

I got into photography in high school. I became really interested in that whole black and white, dark room scene. After school I studied random degrees at different universities; a couple of years in psychology, then communications in Newcastle. In my second year, I’d already filled my entire elective units with photography courses, because that’s all I wanted to do. I would arrive first thing in the morning and leave at night, spending 10 hours straight in the dark room developing prints, which was awesome. A few years ago, I did a TAFE course in photomedia, just to get back into it. The digital work didn’t interest me at all. My heart was in the dark room, and I’d set up my own at home by this stage.

How did you progress into birth photography?

We had an assignment to document a day in the life of someone. Documentary photography has always been a big love of mine. I was keen to do something different, and I realised my brother’s wife was due to have a caesarean section within the timeframe of my project, so I called her the night before and said, ‘How do you feel about me coming in and photographing your c-section tomorrow?’ And she was keen. I just loved it. I was absolutely buzzing the whole time I was in there. Even watching the caesarean and taking photos directly of the womb site, with the hands in there getting the baby out and everything. It was like watching an episode of RPA as far as I felt so detached from the operation that was happening. I walked out of there and said to Ben when I got home, ‘I can’t even think of a better day in my life. I want to do that every day forever.’ And he said, ‘Why don’t you just take photos of women having babies?’

"I sat there staring at the wall for about half an hour. And eventually I realised that no one was going to knock on my door and give me a certificate saying I’m a birth photographer. No one will give me permission. I need to say, ‘I am. I am a birth photographer. That’s what I do."

And that’s how it all happened?

Originally I thought, ‘Oh yeah right, does anyone really want that?’ It seemed even ridiculous to me. A month or so later a woman I’d been following on Instagram – a random mother from the UK – posted a photo saying she photographed a friend’s birth last night and was going to start making business cards. She wasn’t even a photographer. I felt totally indignant. I thought, ‘You can’t just come in and steal the career I’ve been dreaming about!’

I sat there staring at the wall for about half an hour. And eventually I realised that no one was going to knock on my door and give me a certificate saying I’m a birth photographer. No one will give me permission. I need to say, ‘I am. I am a birth photographer. That’s what I do.’ It was hard saying it to people at first because I didn’t believe it myself.

How long did it take you to set up the business?

This was in 2011. I basically spent the next 12 months researching every birth photographer in the world. I googled it internationally and found they were everywhere, especially America and the UK. In Australia there’s a website called Birth Photographers Australia with a directory. There were probably two in WA, two in Victoria, four in Sydney. None anywhere else in NSW.

So you found a niche!

There’s a woman on the Central Coast, Jane, who mainly does Sydney, but there’s no one in Newcastle. This is an ideal place to set up the business because a lot of women who want birth photography are the kinds of women who have home births. Here in Newcastle, we have a government-funded home birth scheme and there’s only five places like it in Australia. That means more women here are having home births and they don’t have to pay for their midwifery care.

What were the first steps you took in starting out?

I found a workshop in Brisbane run by two photographers there and I immediately booked a ticket. This was early 2012. It was almost as if that was enough, I felt like I’d done a degree and I was allowed to do this. I set up a Wordpress site and then tried to convince people to let me take photos of their birth. I worked for free for a year. The workshop in Brisbane said that it was better to work for free, rather than cheap, so then you can set your price later. And then I started the epic lifestyle of being on call!

I’ve wondered in the past whether I should advertise, but Ben always says to me ‘You don’t need to. Keep putting out a good product and clients will come.’ I was unconvinced, but it’s worked. I get emails every day, people wanting to book me in before having even met me.

Do you think the fact you’ve had five kids of your own is a selling point for people?

They know I’m relaxed in a birth situation and there’s nothing I haven’t seen before. I’m not going to be shocked. At all!

Who are the coolest people you know?

Ben, he’s pretty cool to me. He always has new and interesting ideas, constantly. The other person is a lady Ina May Gaskin, a midwife in Tennessee, US. She started a commune back in the ‘60s called The Farm, and it’s a place where women can go, with their families, to give birth. And they all live there like a family, with midwives working there. And when she goes into labour in the middle of the night, Ina May and the midwives would go to their cottage and deliver the baby. She’s easily a birth goddess. She knows so many things. She actually as a manoeuvre named after her: the Gaskin Manoeuvre, when the head comes out and the shoulders are caught.

by Amy Lovat