For millions of women, bringing new life into the world is one of the most dangerous things they can do.
But in Guatemala—whose infamously high maternal mortality rates are largely due to inequal access to health care—clinically trained midwives are teaming up with traditionally trained midwives to provide better care to indigenous women throughout pregnancy and birth.
Photographer Janet Jarman, working with the nonprofit Every Mother Counts, spent weeks with the young women learning both clinical and traditional midwifery in Guatemala’s western highlands. Every Mother Counts supports maternal health organizations on the ground in Guatemala (and around the world), including the programs Jarman documented in this project: Asociación Corazón del Agua, the country's first university-level professional midwifery school, and ACAM, a collective of indigenous Mam-speaking comadronas, or traditional midwives. [See the touching story behind how Every Mother Counts began.]
Jarman spoke with National Geographic about photography’s intimate power and how bridging cultural divides can save lives.
How did you become a photographer?
I’d been a painter for many years before I ever picked up a camera, using it as a way to observe the world. I grew up in Richmond, Virginia; I saw a great divide there. I wanted people to understand each other better, even if they were from different backgrounds. So I started taking pictures as a way to go talk to people, get to know about their lives and what mattered to them. Photography quickly became a useful tool that helped me to interpret the world around me, with all of its contradictions—both its beauty and its chaos. It’s what I can do to give a sense of urgency to what people are facing.
What moments stood out to you while working with these women?
It’s always interesting to do a story on childbirth: it’s unpredictable. All the stars have to line up, and sometimes the moon. One night we were at a small health clinic where Dora (one of the midwife students) had an internship. The doctor gave us access, so we thought we would drive the two hours back to town and come back the next day.
There was a full moon. The whole time we were driving away, I kept having this instinct. So I said, “Let’s go back. We can spend the night in the car.” So we drove back, and the doctor said, “Please come in, stay here.” I was getting everything ready for the possibility of a birth, when I heard this bang on the door. And sure enough, it was a woman in labor.
They allowed the traditional midwife to come in with her, which is not typical. So she got to give birth next to the woman who had been helping her through her whole pregnancy. That was a beautiful moment. I’m glad I went back, trusted that instinct.
What have you taken away from this project?
Just working in this topic, you take away so much. You already have this respect for women, and then it grows exponentially when you see women in these areas—who have challenges in their own lives—they spend hours and hours helping other women. It’s amazing to see doctors and traditional midwives working together. When there’s a will to create change and work together, progress can be made.