Julie Scheurweghs reclaims her birth story

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Using leggings crops of her facial expressions during labour, a portrait of the intense encounter is created

When Belgian performer Julie Scheurweghs was expecting a baby, she asked her partner to photograph the birth. But when she saw their images of her 16-hour labour, she was acutely disappointed. Shot on 7 different cameras, with different ISOs and a mix of black-and-white plus colour, the images experienced distant and clinical. Regarding Scheurweghs, they did not show the experience. “It took me some time to see what I could perform to claim them back and make them my own, to make it our birth story, ” the lady says. “But once I actually figured out I had to move in, mostly on my face, I got into the stream. ”

The result is the girl first book, Mère , published simply by Kult Textbooks ; a striking portrayal of birth which Scheurweghs carves out via limited crops of the original pictures. The baby and the anatomical details are for the most part absent – what is presented instead is really a portrait of an individual undergoing an intense physical experience, occasionally in pain but at other times almost ecstatically calm. In some images, it is not clear that Scheurweghs is giving birth; the particular cover image, she fun, has been mistaken for a woman in orgasm. “What gets the baby in gets the infant out! ” she states. “And yet people usually separate birth from sex. ”

Birthday of a Mother © Julie Scheurweghs.

Birth of a Mother © Julie Scheurweghs.

It is a blind spot she has played with before, joining together crops of medical pictures and vintage porn within an exhibition titled Women Since Parts at Botanique, Brussels, in 2019. The title refers to the depersonalising gaze of both types of picture, which focus on women’s physiques, not faces or experiences. It also refers to the old dichotomies between sex and being a mother – dichotomies so engrained that, for many visitors, the two sets of images appeared incongruous.  

“Porn presents this very male perspective of sex without maternity, because historically men haven’t had to think about pregnancy, ” Scheurweghs points out. “If the woman gets pregnant, it’s her fault. It’s always her responsibility. But if you have intercourse, you can get a baby. Oftentimes that is how it works!

Birth of the Mother © Julie Scheurweghs.

Birth of a Mother © Julie Scheurweghs.

“When I was very first pregnant, but not showing, I used to be seen as a hot young woman. From the moment I was clearly expecting, I was done. You’re a mother, and you’re another thing. It really is the division of the woman in parts. ”

“Also, and I experienced this after i was pregnant, mothers aren’t sexy, ” she continues. “It’s a completely different group. When I was first pregnant, but not showing, I was seen as an incredibly hot young girl. From the moment I was clearly pregnant, I was accomplished. You’re a mother, plus you’re something else. It really is the division of the woman in parts. ”

Mère sets out a more female-first viewpoint. In the same way, Scheurweghs’ current event, Birth of a Mothe r – on show at Mu. ZEE in Ostend until 02 January 2022 – features her images of other women’s pregnancies, births and early motherhood. She hopes that both tasks empower, showing the strength of female bodies and “honour what women can do”. It is the kind of imagery that assisted her when she had been pregnant, she says, when she was fearful of her impending labour plus seeking out more positive examples.  

“I was looking at organic births, calm births, euphoric births, ” she claims. “Unfortunately I didn’t come with an orgasmic birth! But looking at those visuals helped. In case you see what women can perform in giving birth and raising kids, I think we’re very strong human beings. But we often get ourselves for granted, specially in a male-dominated world. ”

Birth of a Mother © Julie Scheurweghs.

Diane Smyth

Diane Smyth is a freelancer journalist who contributes to journals such as The Guardian, The Observer, The FT Weekend Mag, Creative Review, The Calvert Journal, Aperture, FOAM, IMA, Aesthetica and Apollo Journal. Prior to going freelance, she had written and edited at BJP for 15 years. This wounderful woman has also curated exhibitions just for institutions such as The Photographers Photo gallery and Lianzhou Foto Festival. You can follow her on instagram @dismy

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