Proud Women of Africa: Maternity Ward

Co-authored by Nick Schönfeld.

Someone once told me that, as a documentary photographer, you should always expect the unexpected. You can make all the plans you want, lock everything down, work everything out. Then, after you've travelled thousands of miles and you're ready to shoot, something happens that forces you to throw all those plans out the window, and to start from scratch. The unexpected can take any number of forms: a delayed flight, a flat tire, a lens that refuses to focus. Whatever the reason, you have to suddenly change course. 

In January of 2013 I travelled to Rwanda to document the patients, nurses and doctors of the maternity ward at Kanombe hospital in Kigali.

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This was to be my first Proud Women of Africa series outside of South Africa. Not only that, it was going to be my first time working without my usual personal connections, which tend to significantly reduce the risk of the unexpected. 

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In Rwanda, many women become pregnant at a very young age. A lack of sexual education and family planning as well as strict local traditions regularly cause problems during home- and hospital births. According to a study by the National University of Rwanda and School of Public Health, almost half of all pregnancies in Rwanda are unintended, with 22% being ended by induced abortion (abortions performed outside the law.) 

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I had such big plans. I was going to shoot it all. But it very quickly became apparent that I was going to do no such thing, that my plans were not to be. Despite everyone's best intentions, forces beyond my control had decided that I would not shoot what I had been preparing for months. It was so frustrating to know that a story which was almost within my grasp was slipping away. Especially as I felt that this story was something people needed to hear. Not because I should be the one to tell it, but because it was and still is important. 

Unfortunately, that is the hard truth of documentary photography. You might not come home with the images or story you had planned. You feel like you've made the wrong call, misjudged the situation, or that you're in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Rejection and 'failure' will make it hard to see the solutions that are all around you. But as long as you embrace the unexpected, as long as you can adapt to the situation, you'll come out the other side with something to be proud of. The unexpected forced me to change my original idea for Maternity Ward. It's the reason why this series feels like the odd one out compared to the rest of Proud Women of Africa; it includes men, for example. :-)

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Then again, the unexpected is also the reason that I commandeered a small room in Kanombe Hospital and ended up taking what I think are some of my best pictures. Pictures that I could not have taken had the unexpected not happened.

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Click here to see all images of my Maternity Ward series.