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A photographer took pictures of placentas and we can’t look away

Needless to say, what you’re about to see is not for the faint of heart. 

The placenta — sometimes referred to as “the tree of life” — is often overlooked when we talk about birth and pore over the images we usually associate with it. After all, with a cute baby in the room, who wants to look at an organ that will ultimately be disposed of, either as medical waste or by being blended into a smoothie or desiccated for encapsulation?

Marry Fermont of Fermont Fotografie wants us all to take a good look. The Dutch photographer thinks it’s time we give the flat, veiny organ the credit it deserves, and reminds us that without it, there wouldn’t even be a baby to photograph. It’s kind of a big deal.

She’s right. Placentas, whether you believe, as some do, that they have special homeopathic uses and health benefits that border on superpowered, there’s no denying that the placenta is a pretty powerful thing.

From a medical and scientific point of view, the placenta is responsible for a pretty monumental task. It is an organ — and let’s just let that sink in, shall we? Women grow an entirely new organ inside of them, alongside their baby, that is responsible for all manner of fascinating, baby-sustaining stuff.

The placenta gets its “tree of life” moniker from its appearance, and that’s exactly how Fermont refers to it on the Facebook page dedicated to her work. They’re typically the size of a dinner plate, and while the maternal side isn’t necessarily much to look at (Fermont calls this “the ugly side”), the side of the placenta that faces the baby is a network of blood vessels and pathways that resemble the sprawling branches of a tree. The “trunk” is, of course the umbilical cord, which helps keep the baby hooked up to the good stuff. Then there’s the membranes that make up what Fermont calls the baby’s “house.” She marvels that in vaginal births where the membranes aren’t too terribly ruptured, stretching these membranes out can actually provide youu a pretty good picture of how your baby was situated in utero.

We’ve all got them, but Fermont notes that what makes them especially cool is how unique each woman’s is. She should know; she’s phtographed a ton of them. Everything from the location of where the umbilical cord is anchored to the color of the placenta itself can vary widely, and some placentas even develop an additional lobe, sort of a mini-placenta!

It isn’t just cool to look at though; the placenta’s first and most important job is circulation and waste excretion, of course. A mother shares her blood supply with her baby in utero, and the placenta helps pump oxygenated blood and important antibodies to the fetus and take waste away, keeping baby pretty cozy while they await their grand entrance.

The placenta also does something else that’s pretty amazing. Your baby is technically a foreign object, so in order to keep your immune system from rejecting it, the placenta works as a kind of cloaking device, secreting a particular molecule that allows the body to keep on keepin’ on, even as a whole new human grows inside. If that doesn’t impress you, nothing will.

It’s easy to see why Fermont found placentas fascinating enough to urge others to take a look: They’re pretty impressive little powerhouses. While they may not be the most beautiful thing to look at, they are endlessly interesting. Besides, not everything in birth is particularly beautiful. It can be a bloody, sweaty, graceless mess. But that’s part of what makes it — and the placenta — so incredibly fascinating. Our bodies are capable of incredible things. 

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