Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Q&A: Humanitarian Photographer Documents Maternity Crisis in Sub-Saharan Africa

September 18, 2012

We have all heard about the maternal mortality rates in developing countries as well as challenges for maternal health particularly in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. Paolo Patruno, a humanitarian photographer, travelled in Africa for almost ten years documenting stories from the continent including a long-term project about the maternity crisis in sub-Saharan Africa. He recently released a short documentary about maternity in Africa called “Birth is a Dream”.

“I believe it’s my duty to use my camera to let people know what they’ve never seen, what some still ignore is happening,” said Patruno.” “Birth is a Dream is a photography project which aims to document and raise awareness about the maternity crisis in Africa.”

I recently interviewed Patruno about his work documenting maternity in Malawi, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Uganda.

JJ: What drew you to document maternal health and mortality in sub-Saharan Africa?

Paolo: In 2011 I was in Malawi and met an English midwife, Rachel MacLeod, who practiced for nearly 14 years in Spain before moving to Malawi to work as a clinical midwife in the labor ward of the Bwaila Hospital in the capital Lilongwe.

She introduced and explained to me maternal health challenges in Africa. I then had the opportunity to visit public and private hospitals, health centers in rural areas where I looked at the facilities’ conditions as well as witnessed the nurses’ and midwives’ daily job to save mothers and children’s lives. I also attended training for nurses and midwives and community awareness campaigns on safe motherhood.

I visited women in rural villages at their homes together with midwives. All of these experiences showed me how complex pregnancy and childbirth are in sub-Saharan Africa.

Moreover, since I traveled throughout Africa for ten years I know very well how much the role of women is important not only for families, but for the communities as well. A mother's death is a human tragedy, affecting families and communities. Her death endangers the lives of a surviving newborn and any other young children; a mother's death makes it harder for the family to obtain life's necessities and escape the crush of poverty. 

That’s why, as a humanitarian and documentary photographer, I felt a duty to use my camera to show and convey awareness about the maternity crisis.

JJ: What were some of the emotions you felt when you were photographing the mothers, particularly those in childbirth?

Paolo: When I put my eyes behind the camera I concentrate on my photography. Listening to mothers in labor pains took my mind back when I assisted during my son’s birth. Nevertheless what left the biggest impression on me was the lack of joy in the eyes and faces of the African mothers. In developed countries we consider maternity a moment of joy for the new life that is coming, so as soon as women deliver we can definitely see them smiling. That is not what I experienced in Africa.

JJ: Did you discover that many women wanted their stories to be told through photographs? Or were you met with resistance?

Paolo: That is the main challenge for my project. I’m a man. I’m a white man. I’m a white man with a camera taking pictures of women in a labor ward. For me it’s very important, whenever I’m taking pictures to inform everyone in advance about the subject of my photography work and who I am. Both in health facilities and private homes before taking pictures I ask somebody (doctors, midwives, and people from the local community) to introduce me. Every time I had an opportunity to talk directly with some of the women I met, almost most of them accepted and let me take photographs as they wanted me to tell the stories of the African mothers to document and raise awareness.

I also met some women who didn’t want me taking pictures of them, so I just switched off my camera.

JJ: Tell us a little more about your Maternity Project and your plans for the future.

Paolo: The aim of my project is to document and raise awareness about the maternity crisis in Africa. When I started sharing my project, I received encouragement from people living in many different countries and continents so I decided to start in Africa. I wish to extend my project worldwide to document maternity conditions in developing countries.

JJ: What was one of the saddest moments you documented? What was one of the happiest moments you documented?

Paolo: The saddest moment I documented was when in a labor ward I heard women crying from labor pains and a midwife started shouting and reproaching her, telling her not to cry in a rude tone, rather than consoling her.

The happiest moments were spending time together with women both in antenatal and postnatal wards, as I had the opportunity to talk with pregnant and new mothers, sharing thoughts about maternity and my photography project. It has been so moving to have been welcomed, even as a man.

Visit  Paolo Patruno Photography's Maternity Project to view all of the photos in this series.

You can watch Patruno’s documentary here: [Warning: Video contains some graphic scenes which some may find disturbing]:

blog comments powered by Disqus