25 May 2018

My Birth, My Body, My Self

25 May 2018 - Written by Colin Pantall

What happens when a woman gives birth? What happens to her body? What happens to her self? Carmen Winant’s My Birth points to the answers.

© Carmen Winant, spread from the book My Birth

"Very few people asked me about my birth… Most people… are uneasy at the topic. Voices lower, bodies lean out. It is difficult to address suffering, and for the most part I understand their silence as graciousness. Still, I want to say: anguish is only one in a range of dramatic physical sensations that occur; it was more than the pain endured. I want to reassure: my body split open and poured out in front of strangers. I shed any nervousness on this topic along with the solids and fluids. I want to beg: just ask me."

That’s the introduction to Carmen Winant’s My Birth, a book that provides a visual and written response to that "just ask me" plea, a response that came out of the birth of her first child. The book comprises images of birth; found photographs, anonymous photographs and images of "the artist’s mother in the process of giving birth to her own children."

There’s also text. So we’re in image-text land. It opens with a series of questions which begin at the bottom level of the hierarchy of needs with hunger, thirst, pain, and shit, and work upwards until we’re in territory that questions what it is to be a person, what it is to have a self, and indeed how that self even exists.

© Carmen Winant, spread from the book My Birth

"Did you feel hunger?

Did you experience orgasm?

Did you feel that your body was working against you?

Did you have the sense that you were giving birth to yourself?"

Time is frozen by these questions - by the states they reference. We’re in a different land where consciousness, self-hood and the senses overlap. There’s a transporting into a world that, unless you have given birth, is very hard to imagine. This book attempts to fill those gaps in understanding. Pictures of pregnancy follow. There are swollen bellies in colour, in shade, in tasteful black and white, in harsh colour, and in medical settings.

Birth begins with close-ups of exhausted faces, opened legs, protruding hands, images that hook up to the questions featured earlier. It’s a simple narrative, chronologically sequenced but with a repeated linking to the questions that came before. Hands on bodies, hands inside bodies, hands of comfort, supporting hands, women on all fours, bent backs, gas, syringes, stitches, blood and water come in quick succession. There are bent legs, open legs, collapsing legs.

© Carmen Winant, spread from the book My Birth

These images are an attempt to speak of birth "in a language that has no words. How can I draw," asks Winant, "using a field of empty symbols?" Winant’s notes and observations on birth follow. Adrienne Rich, Jane Gallop, Margaret Atwood, and Sylvia Plath get a name check as does Madonna who, we discover, owns Frida Kahlo’s painting My Birth, a painting that she never lends out, Madonna’s very own contribution to the invisibility of birth in popular culture.

Winant, in contrast, makes birth visible - images of stretched vaginas and emerging crowns appear before the child is born, the umbilical cord cut, the stitches sewn, the placenta held up, and the baby fed. "I wonder why I have seen a birth scene filmed from the woman’s point of view," asks Winant. This book is her attempt to make it visible: to put down in a very literal sequence the visceral images of what a woman’s body goes through during birth.

© Carmen Winant, spread from the book My Birth

With that comes another story, the idea of what a woman goes through in giving birth. "I felt distinctly that I was experiencing two births: my child’s, and my own," writes Winant. And that ultimately is what My Birth is about - joining and separation of mother, child, woman, and self, in a process that is earthy, miraculous, spiritual, physical and metaphysical all at the same time. It’s a process we all go through one way or another, it’s a process that’s rarely seen. My Birth shows the process and it’s beautiful.


My Birth by Carmen Winant

Publication date: March 2018 // Softcover and poster dust jacket

Edition of 750 // 120 pages // 22 x 30.5 cm // £35



Carmen Winant is an artist and writer based in Columbus, Ohio. She is an Assistant Professor of Visual Studies and Contemporary Art History at Columbus College of Art and Design; Dean at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, and a co-editor of The Highlights Journal. Follow her on Instagram.

Colin Pantall is a photographer, writer and lecturer based in Bath, England. His latest book, All Quiet on the Home Front, focuses on family, fatherhood and the landscape. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.

Written by

Colin Pantall

Reading time

5 minutes

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