💌 Love Philly? Sign up for the free Billy Penn email newsletter to get everything you need to know about Philadelphia, every day.
When photographer Atiba Sonnebeyatta went out to meet Southwest Philly couple Marshay Edwards and Thomas Butler for maternity portraits, he had no idea the images would go viral, garnering nearly half a million likes on Instagram.
Held one day after the senseless murder of George Floyd, the photo session took place before protests over systemic police violence reached Philadelphia. But they didn’t take long to arrive.
When Sonnebeyatta released the images a few days later — showing a goddess-like Edwards in full pregnant bloom — hundreds of thousands of people gravitated to them, seeking solace in their beauty and message of love and hope.
The shoot itself happened near the Please Touch Museum, a location chosen because of the pandemic.
“The whole [concept] happened because of COVID-19,” Sonnebeyatta explained to Billy Penn. “I was supposed to shoot the expecting couple at the studio. When the studio closed with the other businesses, they were actually going to cancel, but I suggested doing it outside.”
Trusting the process, the couple agreed to the outdoor photo shoot and left the location up to Atiba. He chose the John Welsh Memorial Fountain in West Fairmount Park and the pathways leading up to Concourse Lake.
“When I saw the fountain, I wanted to perch Marshay atop the pillar in homage to how ethereal and regal expecting mothers are,” Atiba explained. “I wanted to show royalty and strength, as well as vulnerability and grace.”
In the photos, Edwards, the 24-year-old CEO of ME Models, dressed angelically in a sheer white gown, which she accompanied with a golden crown atop her long hair. Seemingly mesmerized by her motherly glow, the soon-to-be father looks on with adoration for his eight-month pregnant mate.
Not long after the photos were posted on social media, the couple who met at the age of 15, was elated to learn that their images landed on the Shade Room, a popular Los Angeles-based outlet that covers global celebrity news.
“We were surprised,” said Edwards. “I actually cried because I would never have thought I would see us in the Shade Room, especially something so intimate and positive.”
The photographer was similarly thrilled, especially because he was asked for permission. “I thought it was gonna be for a compilation of maternity shoots,” Sonnebeyatta said, but “all of my shots were featured. I really was just grateful.”
Edwards and Butler are excited about the arrival of their baby girl, Shay’lei Marie, on June 27.
There are still restrictions for hospital deliveries due to COVID-19, so they’ll be the only ones present, which is a downer. But amid all the turmoil, they have hopes for a bright future for their daughter.
“We love and support the black community coming together to have their voices heard,” Edwards said. “We expect our child to be respected by any race with the same respect she is going to give. We hope for safety, positivity and love.”
Scroll down to view additional photos from the portrait session.