A young woman suffers during labor for her first baby. A traditional birth attendant (TBA) tries to encourage and assist her not only physically but also from a psychological point of view. Photograph by Paolo Patruno.
A ‘humanitarian photographer,’ as he defines himself, Paolo Patruno has documented social issues around Africa over the last ten years. He finally decided to make this his full-time profession a few years ago — right around the time he started focusing on the issue of maternal health in Sub-Saharan Africa. He was introduced to it by an acquaintance, a British midwife who had been working in Malawi for four years. A father of two, Patruno thought he knew what kind of atmosphere should accompany the delivery of a baby, but the reality he discovered was very different.
“Maternity should stand for serenity, joy, happiness, hope… in Africa it’s not always quite like that,” he remarked.
The absence of minimal access to professional healthcare during pregnancy and delivery, together with the poor sanitary conditions in which women find themselves giving birth, are most often the overarching issues jeopardizing a positive outcome for the process, particularly in rural areas.
Patruno remembers entering a Ugandan hospital ward once and seeing a girl crying and wailing because she was about to give birth. Standing next to her, a midwife was harshly reproaching the girl for doing so, instead of trying to reassure her and calm her down.
“That interaction was more shocking than all the blood and the appalling sanitary conditions in which the scene was taking place,” he recalled.
The feeling of uncomfortableness and roughness of the clinical environment as well as of the experience of delivery pervades much of Patruno’s “Birth is a Dream,” a long-term project that has documented maternity in Uganda, Malawi and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. His choice to focus on the moment of birth in particular, which at times runs the risk of causing uneasiness in the viewer, is dictated by the photographer’s will to explore the multifaceted nature of the issue, even in its “more brutal and crude” aspects. Ideally, this should also serve his purpose of bringing the topic to a wider public’s attention, involvement, and action.