In conversation with Sara Urbaez
Edited for length and clarity

Bethany Mollenkof:
Birthing in Alabama + New Work

[Note to our readers: Bethany originally received a grant from We, Women to document midwives and birthing in Alabama. She was set to go back and photograph the community. However, due to her pregnancy and the spread of COVID-19, she was forced to put her project on hold and chose instead to focus on documenting her pregnancy at her home in Los Angeles. This conversation took place over a period of three months: a month before Bethany gave birth and two months after her daughter was born. -Sara]

I've never seen anything quite like your personal project on pregnancy, especially with the black and white imagery, I love the tones and the shadows and light coming through. For me, as someone who does doula work, I feel the photo industry and that work is so separate that I've never been able to merge them. I wanted to talk with you about what this project [taking self-portraits while pregnant] means to you right now, and what it's been like working on it.

It's been super interesting — she's a surprise baby. My husband and I wanted kids but weren’t in a rush, so we decided to start trying and figured we’d have kids in the next couple of years. By December [2019] I was already pregnant, so we thought, "2020 seems a good year."

I wasn't super focused on photographing my pregnancy. I thought, "Cool, I'll take pictures,” but I didn’t feel I had a story I needed to tell. We were excited about having a family. Then as soon as the COVID stuff started happening, I realized I wouldn’t be able to work on my birthing project.

I was really excited to go back to Alabama pregnant, to work while I was pregnant with other pregnant people. My focus was this was going to be a really cool experience to share with other pregnant women while I'm photographing them. I wasn't the focus of it at all, because I've never done that before. I've never put myself in a story.

I have the grant from the We, Women, and they're going to publish some of the photos. I still have to figure out all the details because I haven't fully — it's so crazy to be living through all this and then to be thinking about it as work, too.

Yes, it's not something that you can freely do, there's parameters.

Yes, so it's been weird to try to navigate that, but I haven't been able to go to Alabama. I still want to photograph the community in Alabama because I haven't seen any information about coronavirus and pregnancy — there's not a lot of good stories. The New York Times had one that was animated. It was cool, but I wanted to see what this experience is like, especally because we already know all the statistics for Black women and birth, and this feels like a very important story to tell. I'm a journalist, so I need to figure out how to tell it. I started taking pictures of myself and my husband. Those pictures now mean even more because we didn't think that coronavirus was going to be such an isolating thing.

I'm trying to get my mind around it — my mom was supposed to come visit, my sister was supposed to come visit. Now my husband can't even go into the appointments. It's a very isolating experience. I wanted to create imagery that shows how isolating it is. That's where the light and the shadows and fragmented images of different parts of myself and the writing.

Then the Black Lives Matter movement started. We had already chosen her name, Luna Pearl. Pearl is my grandma's name, my Black grandma. Pearl is really important to us because — I don't know what Luna is going to look like — carrying on that name is really important to us. My middle name is Randolph, which is my Black family's last name. They were enslaved, that's their enslaved last name.

There's this idea of resistance and her whole birth has taken on a whole new meaning for me and her importance in the world and who she will become. All of it feels so counter to everything that's happening. Coronavirus, isolation, all these things — we're still here and we're going to keep persisting. That's how I've had to cope with it, because all of my expectations, I could never have thought any of this would happen as well.

I know for me, what really interested me in doing birth work and being a doula was about connection to my ancestry, to the women in my lineage who were midwives and who, in the midst of a dictatorship, supported women in giving birth — the radical act of resistance that it is to be a person of color and to bring life and what it means. Is that something you were thinking about when you were working on the “Birthing in Alabama” project?

Yes, and that's where I've been trying to reconcile the two. The Alabama work is all in color and it's a different tone, but the reason why I started working in that is because my sister had a baby three years ago in Tennessee. I saw the racism she experienced and how people didn't listen to her because their son is special needs. It still happens. She was at the doctor two weeks ago and they asked her if she was the foster mom because he’s very fair. It's ridiculous stuff that we have to go through.

Having talked to my mom, this whole birthing thing really made a lot of sense for me to start pursuing before I even thought about having kids. I really wanted to understand this — it feels like the ultimate act of resistance.

We've had these things in our histories for so long that have been erased. I wanted to go to the places where we are still persisting and photograph these women. That was the premise for how I started the birth work in Alabama. Then I did the abortion work for the New York Times and it all made so much sense. As soon as I started working on it, I knew it was what I needed to do. It all clicked spiritually and mentally — everything made sense to me.

That's what I felt when I started volunteering as a doula work. I was like, "Of course, of course this is the work I am meant to do."

Exactly. As soon as I traveled to Mississippi, I was "Oh, this is it." I would say that it was almost three years ago that I started thinking that and reading and really investing in my own understanding of the past and of women — how we've always been there, and how it's always been denied. Women helping women has always been something that’s been taken away from us and institutionalized so that men are the ones who get credit — It's crazy.

All of that connects, and then me being pregnant has been this whole other aspect of it. Now I’m the one experiencing a lot of stuff. The cool thing though is all three of my doctors have been Black women. So my experience has been really good, medical-wise, other than the coronavirus keeping Gabe from being able to go to the hospital with me and the isolation aspect of it.

I'm so glad to hear that you are supported, because I've been a witness in many rooms where I've heard horrible things doctors said. As women of color, our own perceptions, and our own lived experience, aren’t listened to or respected in medical spaces, and in pregnancy.

No, they are not.

It's not taken seriously, and part of me has been thinking about how that also happens in photography, because so many times, it's a white outsider who was sent to document the South or some of these experiences, places they have no connections to rather than letting artists really speak to their lived experience. That's something I've been reflecting on — photography adds another layer of resistance to your work because it's your body, it's your pregnancy and you're documenting it.

Yes, and that to me has been so interesting, because if you look at any sort of personal essays that get published or stories about people, very personal love stories or anything, it's never centered around Black women. The only people we know are the super famous ones. That's what I've been thinking a lot about, how this is published or how I put this out in the world –– I think even that is an act of resistance.

Me continuing to work and document this is resisting the industry that says, "We don't really care about that." It's been fascinating. I want to make sure when I put this in the world that it's very intentional. That people understand that I'm actually saying something with this — that I continued to work on my narrative and I worked in the field this entire pregnancy because that's me pushing back against an industry that says, “Women can't be pregnant. Women can't have kids, women can't be in it." Every aspect of what I'm doing is very resistant to white supremacy and all of this stuff.

I have a photographer friend on Instagram, and we were talking — she didn't know I was pregnant and she said, "I'm so inspired. I've been afraid to talk to my partner because we didn't want to open that can of worms about having kids." She messaged me a month later and said, "After I talked to you, I felt empowered to talk about it with him — I actually felt like, 'Oh, there's a chance I could do this. This could be possible.'"

I feel that with this whole story I'm trying to figure out what's the best platform and what's the best place to get it out there so women can actually feel like it’s possible. This fight, all of this shit, you can still make your life what you want. You get to dictate that, don't let all these people dictate your experience for you.

The visibility is so important because imagery is so crucial to how we understand culture, what we expect, and to see images of a woman photographer working in the midst of it — it changes people's perceptions.

Yes, I thought about it. it's so hard to get my mind around all of this because I'm used to telling other people's narratives. Part of me is really protective because it is our lived experience and my child. I want to make sure it's the way that I want it to be. I've had to think about how I want this to actually exist in the world. I'm a private person in general. Part of me wants it to be mine, but my husband always tells me that my story is unique and powerful — it's so universal.


When we first had our conversation, Luna Pearl had not yet been born. Two months later, can you describe how life has shifted for you?

Our baby is here! She is the most wonderful, curious little being and she is teaching me so much about patience. Being a mom is incredible. My labor and delivery was intense and I came out the other side truly wrecked. I am finally feeling healed but it has been a big transition — I am finally processing the last 10 months.

My photo essay called “Giving Birth in a Time of Death: A Love Letter to My Daughter'' published in National Geographic and I have been blown away by the response. I worked with some incredible women on the edit and copy, and felt truly supported in the process. I couldn’t be happier with how this all came together. The moment I saw the story go live, I was holding Luna and burst into tears. I feel very at peace with the work existing and the space it is creating.

Do you think along with this major life transition that how you view and create photographs is now different? Is there anything you are noticing about the work that you had not considered before?

For the first few weeks after Luna arrived, I couldn’t look at the photos without crying. Pregnancy to delivery to motherhood is such a fast process and I needed some time to transition. I was scared I wasn’t going to be able to get the work out there. So, I let them sit for a few weeks and then started working with editors at National Geographic.

I now can look at the photos in a more objective way, because, in a lot of ways, I am no longer that person. Being Luna’s mom has unlocked so many different new parts of my identity. Which has been surprising and lovely, and I can feel myself approaching all of my work in a new way.

What are you now hoping to communicate with this imagery, and the future work you will do on the series?

Women’s stories make up just 0.5 percent of recorded history. My hope for this work is to create space for other voices and legitimize experiences like mine. The U.S. has incredibly unfair family policy with the pressure of raising kids being put more on women.

For us to begin to tackle these issues, we need space for women to talk about their experiences of pregnancy, birth and motherhood.

Visit Bethany’s website and Instagram

LISTO / 2020 / OAK, CA