Editor's note : This story includes images that some readers may find disturbing.
When photojournalist Linsi Addario was awarded the MacArthur Scholarship in 2009, she took the chance to work on a topic that many photographers and editors strayed from: maternal mortality. Photos of her at overcrowded hospitals, bloody floors and midwives in training illustrate the challenges women face at birth and what the global health community is doing to overcome it. The series was presented at this year's Visa Pour L & # 39; image festival in Perpignan, France.
Addario witnessed some of the most intense global conflicts of his time. She has worked for publications such as The New York Times National Geographic and Time magazine and has covered life in the Taliban in Afghanistan and the plight of Syrian refugees. She was abducted twice during a mission, most recently in Libya in 2011, while covering a civil war.
Every two minutes a woman dies of childbirth or pregnancy-related causes and many of these deaths are completely preventable. While the global health community has made great strides by reducing the rate of this maternal mortality after efforts intensified in the early 1990s, the reality for many mothers is still worsening.
We talked to Adario, the author of the memoir of 2015. This is what I do: A Life of Love and the War of the Photographer about what drives her work and what she witnessed in a decade of reporting on this topic. The interview was edited and abbreviated for clarity.
How were you interested in the topic of maternal mortality?
In 2009, I was named MacArthur's associate. It was the first time in my career that I was given money to work on a project with no assignment, so I could choose something that I felt was important to cover. I began to learn about the incredible number of women who die at birth each year. This was not an easy-to-publish story – I think most editors thought it wasn't a sexy topic. Most people just don't realize what a great job this is.
[Early in the project,] At the first hospital I went to outside of Freetown, Sierra Leone, I literally watched a very young woman, Cessie's mom, bleeding in front of me on camera and dying. And I knew this was a story to go on.
You write in your book on love and war that what compels you to do photojournalism is "documenting injustice". How is this applied in this series?
If you are a poor woman living in a village where there are no medical specialists around and you do not have enough money to get to a hospital, then you run the risk of dying at birth. This is an injustice. I think everyone has the right to a safe delivery. In 2019, there should be medical facilities accessible to anyone with access to them or mobile clinics.
Would you be a mother when you started the project?
No. In fact, I always joked in the birth ward that I would never become a mother because I had shot so many women giving birth and knew it was such a painful and difficult experience. Then in 2011 I gave birth to my first son, so I ended up doing it anyway. Although this project made me more scared because I really know how much can go wrong.
Ironically, my own delivery in 2011 was not a great experience. I moved to London when I was 32 weeks pregnant and 37 weeks pregnant. I did not have a doctor, in principle I just showed up at the hospital nine inches, enlarged and delivered with any midwife on duty. Now that I've been doing this project for 10 years, there are so many things I would offer to moms for the first time – or moms for the second time.
Like a doula or someone with you who may be a protector – who can explain to you what is going on with your body that can help you navigate the pain. Someone who can understand if something is wrong, like the symptoms of preeclampsia: headache, sweating, swelling. There are so many that we just don't know that we haven't been taught. People take birth for granted.
What is it like to talk to your fellow men about this project?
Most of them simply did not pay attention to this work. My colleagues have told me about some stories – like the woman giving birth on the side of the road in the Philippines and the story of Mamma Sessay – because they are sensational, but no one asked me about work that is interesting in and of themselves. I think people are kind of ashamed to talk about birth, you know? Unless it's something happy and positive.
What surprised you while shooting this series?
How much access people have. I've shot – I can't even count how many – probably three or four dozen births. Women invite me to many intimate spaces. I'm obviously trying to be very respectful about shooting something like that. This is one of the most beautiful things I've witnessed watching a baby born. It's something delicate to shoot because it's so incredible and at the same time it's very graphic. It is difficult and it always amazes me how many people have let me go.
This word "graphic" pops up to me. Now I look at one of your photos where there is blood on the floor in the maternity ward and is uncomfortable in a way other than watching blood from violence.
It's different. It's different because nobody thinks of giving birth that way. They think of birth as Hallmark photos, but there are many things that are not beautiful.
You've been working on this project for 10 years. What has changed?
The statistics [for maternal mortality] are down, which is amazing and there is a lot more awareness. There are so many organizations – such as Every Mother Counts, which is the organization of Christy Turlington, and UNFPA and UNICEF, who work to combat maternal death. There is more information, but there is still too much – one woman a day is too much.