Visual timestamping. Say what?!
Look, technically I made up the term and it could be easily interchanged with in situ or environmental timestamping. Same, same.
Regardless, it’s not an uncommon practice for experienced birth photographers, and for natural documentarians in any field it typically comes without conscious effort.
We know our cameras automatically and invisibly timestamp our images in their metadata.
The date, hour, minute and second each photo was taken is stored as digital data within individual image files so such details can be later referred to at any time (pardon the pun) assuming settings were accurate to begin with.
But the automatic and unseen recording of time is not what visual timestamping refers to.
What is Visual Timestamping?
As the name suggests, this form of conscious and visible timestamping refers to the simple process of systematically taking photos of actual time sources in real life throughout the course of covering an event – such as a birth documentary.
Objects such as clocks, phones and watches etc. that literally show the time can certainly seem banal subject matter in isolation but when captured and peppered through the photographic documentation of a birth, they function as powerful – and arguably essential –
ABOVE: Go-to visual timestamping content: clocks
ABOVE: An example of the narrative detail a simple visual timestamping photo can convey. Not only can we see the day, date and time, the phone’s wallpaper photo shows a woman happily showing off a sonogram photo, the half-eaten muesli bar suggests someone present has a limited appetite (or they know they’re going to be there for a while so are saving some for later) and the second phone lets the viewer know there’s at least one support person present
Important Pieces in the Narrative Puzzle
The shortest labour I’ve photographed was around 4.5 hours. The longest was just over 24 hours.
Without the visual timestamps throughout, what cues would there be to differentiate the time span of either story, some 20-odd hours apart in length?
ABOVE: Bookend visual timestamps from the same birth taken some 24 hours apart. Alone, they’re ‘just’ photos of clocks but placed at either end of a set of birth documentary photos (and supported by other visual timestamps throughout) they give the family and viewer immediately understandable anchor points from where to place the story’s beginning and end
When lacking visual timestamps, a birth documentary offers the viewer no sense of time frame – aside from natural cues like day and night but even then, they’re not always available or immediately obvious.
Sometimes birth spaces compare to the designed-to-send-you-into-a-neutral-time-warp casino: once inside, the concept of time as provided by natural light is completely stripped from the environment!
Birth spaces can be made dark in the middle of the day or be glaringly lit in the middle of the night. You often need literal markers of time to help account for the lack of natural signifiers.
ABOVE: Could be 9:45AM or 9:45PM. It’s not always immediately obvious in a birth space
If there are no visual timestamps throughout a birth documentary to mark and remind of the passage of time – be it brief or extended – such a critical element of the story would be lost: over what length of time did the labour and birth actually span? How much time fell between pivotal moments in the story?
The Power of Visual Timestamping
How long a birth story went for and what happened when is such essential information.
It’s detail we want to know. It’s detail we – as birthing mothers especially – need to know when reflecting back upon our birth via our professional or personal photos.
Doing so provides a powerful opportunity to piece together the epic story we ‘starred’ in…and yet were equally utterly removed from given the deep and often detailless internalisation labour drives us into.
ABOVE: All sense of time and detail is often lost for birthing mothers during and after childbirth, regardless of the type of birth. (Photo: Carla Mahony)
ABOVE: By slightly changing the camera angle, the clock could have easily been eliminated from this image, but its conscious inclusion adds further detail to the scene and thus ultimately greater understanding and opportunity for memory recall and story retelling for the family
Often, we can’t recall exactly what happened. Typically, we can’t recall when.
Visual timestamps enable us to make sense of what may otherwise be a patchwork of in-between contraction and/or oxytocin-filled bliss bubbles of vague snippets of memory.
But visual timestamping is important stuff that can easily be overlooked in place of the more obvious and discussed photos to keep an eye out for when photographing a birth.
A photo of phone or clock can seem banal and certainly far less ‘glamourous’ than other available ‘subjects’ or scenes during a labour and birth documentation – and indeed a single visual timestamp photo is of limited value compared to a series of them thoughtfully sprinkled throughout the length of a narrative.
Through the therapeutic power of birth photography – and especially that well marked with and directed by visual timestamps (and/or printed timestamps where relevant) – we can piece the story back together in our minds.
ABOVE & BELOW: Visual timestamps contribute to a birth narrative when peppered throughout. They can also communicate information about the location of the birth and the people involved
In this way, visual timestamps serve masterfully as visual punctuation. In fact, they function in the exact same way written punctuation does in a slab of text by helping to provide meaning, context, rhythm and comprehension.
The following six images span across an approximate 12-hour time frame from early labour through to birth.
They’re the in between times rather than the height of the ‘action,’ as such. Many photos are missing but even so, a sense of the story is communicated – greatly aided by the inclusion of visual timestamping throughout.
Pro Tips for Visual Timestamping
VARIATION: where possible, look for multiple time objects to photograph. Typically, a clock and/or someone’s watch and a phone will always be available – if not in the birth space itself, most likely nearby. As well as looking for different objects, consider varying your shot style for sake of visual interest as well i.e. close-up, mid-shot, long shot, varying angles etc. Lens choice and focal length can also help to vary the look of your time source.
ABOVE: A clock is a clock is a clock! Do what you can to vary your visual timestamping photos. Change your angle, composition, focal length etc.
CONTEXT: consider photographing visual timestamps both on their own as the main point of focus as well as within a scene as a more subtle contributing element. This will also obviously depend on the location of the time device and the relevance of the scene to the overall story.
ABOVE: A hospital clock photographed in isolation offers detail but limited context
FOCUS: mix it up by varying your point of focus e.g. sometimes you might throw the foreground elements out of focus to emphasise the time device, other times you may do the reverse i.e. keeping the time device just enough in focus to maintain legibility while holding focus on your chosen subject.
TIMING: photograph visual timestamp opportunities both with regular cadence throughout the course of documentation (e.g. hourly) AND immediately before and after pivotal moments where relevant. Use your best judgement though – there’s no hard and fast rule! Take visual timestamps when it makes sense to do so. (No one needs a clock shot every umpteen minutes.)
TIME & DATE SETTINGS: ALWAYS check and update your camera’s date and time settings before photographing any birth (or photography job) and if you’re using more than one body, be sure to manually sync the settings across bodies. Anyone who’s made the mistake of shooting a single event or session across multiple bodies that aren’t time synched will know the post-production nightmare it can create in terms of chronologically sorting your images manually (if no workaround is offered in your culling or processing software.)
SUPPORTING ELEMENTS: Keep an eye out for other important but seemingly ‘boring’ details that may help trigger memories and understanding for the birth mother and family. This can include any number of things such as street or hospital signage, external shots of the home or building or car park, baby bag or general baby items, staff name badges, the view out the window, candles, oils, affirmations, food and drink consumed, the newspaper or a magazine (also helpful visual timestamps for date and year), baby’s name card, medical charts etc.
Visual timestamping differs greatly from the more commonly known technical/digital timestamping.
The latter happens automatically in-camera via the digital recording of time and date information – visible only via metadata – where the former is a conscious decision and action made to visibly take photos of time devices as a means to contribute to the overall understanding of an event’s narrative (that typically unfolds over a course of time.)
Visual timestamping is a simple but powerful process birth photographers (and more importantly, their clients) can greatly benefit from utilising.
It acts as a form of visual punctuation that helps to break up a photo series, especially those typically photographed over an extended period of time in a single space (like a birth.)
ABOVE: Same space, two very different visual timestamp photos. Each helps add to the sense of story via time and setting information
Photos of time sources literally communicate time (and often place) to the viewer while helping to demonstrate the overall span of time – be it brief or extended – between micro and pivotal events.
As a birth photographer, if visual timestamping isn’t something you’re already doing – either consciously or intuitively – consider incorporating it into your shooting workflow next time you have the chance.