Event review: the Pregnancy and Birth Exhibition, Croydon University Hospital

By - Monday 18th July, 2016

Bumps and babies, but where was the exhibition? Liz Sheppard-Jones reviews part of Thornton Heath Arts Week 2016

Photo author’s own.

No battle plan survives contact with the enemy, observed German military strategist Helmuth von Moltke. He could just as easily have said ‘birth plan’: your midwife encourages you to write one, along with your birthing partner, and the two of you do so one evening over a cup of tea in the peace of your child-free home. You’re clueless, but you’re optimistic.

Which is kind of how it was for me and my almost-fifteen-year-old son when we made our way to the maternity unit at Croydon University Hospital on the opening day of Thornton Heath Arts Week 2016 to take a look at the Pregnancy and Birth exhibition by Jackie Morrison.

Infants are larval blobs, indistinguishable and uninteresting

Our first challenge was finding the maternity unit, which isn’t in the Yellow Zone no matter what the lady on the desk says. The second was getting in: security is clearly vital but we peered through a glass door into a Marie Celeste-like hallway and none of the bell options encouraged us to ring them: triage? Special care? The labour ward? Having babies is a serious business and you don’t like to interrupt in search of a photography show. Eventually a haggard-looking new dad emerged and we slipped in behind him. And still we couldn’t find it.

That’s because we were looking for an exhibition, which really… this isn’t. It’s photos in a particularly inaccessible corridor.

I liked the photos except for one, which I’ll come to. Actually, I have similar shots of my own two children. For while human infants are larval blobs, their behaviour uninteresting, their appearance indistinguishable, the compelling beauty of your own still knocks you for six and before you know it you’re shelling out to have plaster casts made of their impossibly cute little feet and fingers to hang on your living room wall. It’s a mum thing.

The new parents stare at their baby in the shock of birth which precludes being happy

But as my firstborn and I shuffled past the photographs, searched for more and realised that that was our lot, we agreed that there was a problem here: as I said, this isn’t a photography exhibition. Neither, with one exception, is it really about the subject of ‘pregnancy and birth’, if by ‘about’ you mean ‘inviting reflection upon’. Which is what I do mean.

Except for the one I mentioned earlier. The shot that connects with its subject is of a brand-newborn covered in vernix (the waxy substance which coats them in the womb to prevent their skin getting prune-y and wrinkled whilst they’re surrounded by liquid). The baby in this photograph has been delivered in water and his/her parents are still in it, gazing down at their child in the shock of birth which precludes being happy: they are simply stunned.

Photo author’s own.

It’s a moment I recognise: I wore this look once myself. The consultant who’d overseen my pregnancy had been told that my son had arrived and put his head round the door of the delivery room. He said “congratulations”, but his words came from far away and I couldn’t make a sound: I stared back, wordless. My response must have been familiar: he nodded and left.

The birth of a baby is also the birth of a mother and a father: a transition you can’t prepare for, a looking-glass shift with no way back to the world as it was before. Jackie Morrison has captured that extraordinary instant, and I took it in standing shoulder to shoulder with the very tall baby who shared it. He had no idea how odd this made me feel.

Other than that, the pictures promote Jackie’s photography business: dads and bumps, tiny toes, babies in red spotty hats. They’re cute and I’d happily hire her for a shoot. It’s great to have pictures like this in a maternity unit, too: the paintings nearby just take up wall space. I can’t remember what they were.

I’d like to see more of Jackie’s interesting stuff, though. Her display at the hospital was described two years ago in the Croydon Advertiser so perhaps there were more photos somewhere else. But we looked around and there was nothing to tell us (over to you, Thornton Heath Arts Week) and no one to ask. If something is advertised as being part of an arts event, there should be preparation for visitors.

So we left, feeling a bit disappointed.

Liz Sheppard-Jones

Liz Sheppard-Jones

Writer and editor. Views personal, not representative of editorial policy.

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