Gift of Life winner. Photo by Leilani Rogers, USA, via girlyfeelings,com

I haven’t many hobbies – I’d like to do so many things, from knitting to horse-riding, from paragliding to painting, from singing in a choir to becoming really good at cooking. Ars longa et vita brevis, “the art is long [to learn] and life is short”, as the ancients used to say.

So I focus on hobbies which one can practise – albeit badly – even with little available time. Photography is perfect for me: since I’m frequently abroad for my job my faithful camera can be always found hanging from my neck, and sometimes I flatter myself to have taken a few good shots.

Since – public confession – I’m also a bit vain, I like people to see my best pictures; so, when I found out that there was a community of amateur photographers promoted by National Geographic, I eagerly joined it. There, we budding and self-deluded Cartier Bressons upload our best shots; they remain for a few moments on the website’s homepage, so – if you’re lucky – a few people from the farthest corners of the globe will “like” your masterpieces, and your ego will be flattered for a while.

If this is not enough for your ambitions, the site runs nearly-weekly contest: the editors propose a theme and the community answers, either by going on mission on purpose and taking pictures answering to the theme or – as the lazy ones like myself do – by choosing among the pictures in one’s portfolio those which might correspond to the given title.

Why am I telling you all this? Because, a few weeks ago, NG gave us one of the most fascinating titles we could get: “The Gift of Life”. The assignment was explained, as usual, by a short article by the editors, where they choose to highlight the awe and amazement one of them felt at the birth of her daughter, who had to fight with a severe heart condition which required a heart transplantation: after one year, the baby found a donor and thus, it can be said, she received the “Gift of Life” twice.

It was a touching story, which inspired me and the other photographers to illustrate the miracle we experience daily – when life reveals itself at its most shining, like at a child’s birth, or when we feel the amazing power of nature, but also in the humble and almost invisible miracle of the million heartbeats which keep us alive, of the million breaths we take unaware, of the unceasing run of our blood, of the first green leaf in spring or the first cherry in May.

Well, in spite of my little vanity, I’m also rather honest with myself, and I participate in the contests being fully aware that I’m never going to win. I enjoy seeing the fantastic pictures of the others, and in most cases I think that the winners fully deserve their laurel – when I’m perplexed, it’s often just a matter of taste.

However, on this occasion I was more than mildly puzzled. Among the winners of the Gift of Life competition there was a photo whose objective beauty is undeniable – perfect technique, powerful emotions, the right moment and the right angle – but which seems to me perfectly at odds with the given theme.

Life is a gift, true. Our own life is a continually received gift. And the possibility of giving life to another human being, who will embody forever his or her parents’ love, is perhaps the greatest of all gifts in our life. A baby is a miracle. But their life is, by definition, a gift. No one has a right to a child – indeed, the very idiom “having a child” is a contradiction. Children are no-one’s property; they are gifts, but they cannot be sold.

Or can they? The winning picture of the “Gift of Life” assignment represents a surrogate mother giving birth to a baby, while the “other parents” are observing with joy and amazement. The wonderful mixture of feelings portrayed on the “other woman’s” face makes it very easy to identify the true mother – she is the one who is feeling extreme pain but at the same time an immense joy, relief, happiness. The other, alas, is one of the observers.

Their story is told in the community’s webpage, and can be found on the “other mother’s” own website. She was a “solo starter” (trademark: she has registered the definition), a woman who, after being diagnosed with illnesses which could have compromised her capacity to become pregnant and give birth, tried to achieve a pregnancy “solo”, obviously through IVF. After some unsuccessful “attempts”, she finally could give birth to a child.

However, she wanted to go on, and tried again, this time without succeeding. So, a younger female relative of hers came in her aid, and accepted to act as a surrogate mother; but in this case, too, there were several failed attempts. Eventually a baby was born – as documented in the winning picture – and – again as shown in the shot – the “other mother” who had started “solo” had found a partner in the meanwhile.

Happy ending? Well, of course, all births are happy endings, all births must be celebrated, all births make us deeply grateful for the “gift of life”. But there is a deep and desperate irony in the idea of praising a picture which should embody the idea of life as a gift, but which ultimately depicts a human being’s “change of ownership”: from the womb of the surrogate mother to the family who wanted him; from near the heart of the mother who nourished him for nine months with her own blood and her own life, to the “parents” who claimed parenthood as a right and a child as a possession.

I don’t want to be judgmental, and I am deeply sympathetic with all single persons and couples who desire the gift of parenthood. I understand that this longing may be heartbreaking, and that to see days, months and years pass without being able to conceive is a terribly painful experience. I can also see that an “altruistic” surrogacy is somewhat different from the commercial exploitation of third-world women who become mere breeders for wealthy Western would-be parents.

But a gift is a gift. And, in my opinion, another of the winning pictures captures the idea much better: an old Vietnamese couple joking and laughing together is a refreshing image of how amazing life can be – when you think of it, daily, as a gift.

Dr Chiara Bertoglio is a musician and theologian moonlighting as a journalist. She writes from Italy. Visit her website. One of her own entries in the Gift of Life can be viewed here.

Dr Chiara Bertoglio is a musician and theologian moonlighting as a journalist. She writes from Turin in Italy. Visit her website at