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Arts & Life

Photographers Provide First And Last Photos For Parents Of Stillborn Babies

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Image courtesy of Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep
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Photographer: Alison O Manlon

This Sunday is Bereaved Mother’s Day — a day to honor mothers who have lost their children, sometimes even before they’ve had a chance to take their first breath. Since 2005, Denver-based organization Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep has worked with those families to create portraits that commemorate their children. KUNC arts reporter Stacy Nick spoke with the group’s CEO, Gina Harris, to find out more.

Interview Highlights:

These interview highlights have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Your nonprofit, Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep, has provided families experiencing the death of a baby with photo portraits so they have a way to remember their child. How has the pandemic impacted the program?

I was pleasantly surprised that most of the hospitals saw our photographers as essential workers. The nurses really see that what we provide is absolutely essential to the healing journey for these families, and so we got the calls from the hospitals that asked, are you still coming in? So we have left that up to the individual photographers because some of them are not in situations where they should be going into a hospital.

But we had been developing the medical program prior to the pandemic, where we train nurses and other medical personnel to photograph the baby. And then they send those photographs to us and we gently retouch the photographs for the families. So now we have well over 1,000, probably pushing 1,500 nurses that are trained and hundreds upon hundreds of sessions that have been photographed since the pandemic began. So we were able to fill in that missing gap where maybe we wouldn't have enough photographers to go into the hospitals because of the pandemic.

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Image courtesy of Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep / Photographer: Sue Kaltenbach

I know you have a personal connection with Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep. Would you mind telling me how you got involved with the program?

When my husband and I were pregnant with our first son, we learned that his kidneys did not develop and that it was incompatible with life. And so our doctors said that we would probably carry him until mid-30 weeks gestation. And that's when they typically will, the mom will go into labor and have the baby. In that time, I had a friend tell me about Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep, and at first I wasn't sure. I was a little hesitant. Is this appropriate to take a picture of my baby like this?

But I went to the website. I saw how beautiful the photographs were, and I knew it was something that I wanted to do. I thought, if we never look at them again, at least we'll have them. Now, I have them hanging up everywhere and they are my most prized possession. So I know for the families that receive these photographs, it is so healing for their journey.

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Image courtesy of Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep / Photographer: Sandy Puc

And I also know firsthand how helpful it is after you've lost a baby, because our second son, Ethan, had a different fatal condition and we lost him as well at six months into the pregnancy. His condition was really severe and so we chose not to have a photographer come and photograph him. I always regretted not at least getting some pictures of his hands or his feet or him wrapped in the blanket. But it just wasn't a situation we wanted to bring a photographer out for. Ethan was the inspiration behind our medical program because there are so many babies to be photographed and sometimes it's just not conducive for a photographer to be there and that's why we train the nurses.

I see that many of your volunteer photographers also have personal experience with this situation. I can imagine it's very hard for both the photographer and the families during those moments. Can you tell me how you work with photographers to handle these situations?

Once somebody is a photographer with us, they've already been vetted and we’ve looked at their photography skills to make sure they'll be able to create beautiful images. So then the training really moves towards interacting with the families. You don't walk in and just say, “Hi, how are you doing?” It’s not the situation where you're going to say that.

So we help them with how to interact with the families and guide them through every situation they walk into can be very different. Some families can be very, very distraught, as you can imagine, but then some — they aren't as distraught. So it just depends. Some parents have not even held their baby yet. Some are cuddling their baby. So we really help the photographers guide them through the session.

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Image courtesy of Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep / Photographer: Brittany Oaks

Forgive me, this is kind of a difficult question to ask, but how do you train photographers to handle situations where the child is in a condition that might be hard to photograph?

Our photographers have walked into so many situations and so many different conditions of the babies, and we do our best to prepare them for that. Some of the babies, they look like they're sleeping, and there are some that have skin tearing and bruising. But that's where the retouching and the use of black and white is able to show how the baby really would have looked like. So when I say we “retouch,” we do not change the appearance of a baby. If a baby has a cleft lip, we leave the cleft lip. If the baby has a sixth toe, we leave the sixth toe. So we're not changing that. It's just anything that comes along with the trauma of birth, especially for a stillborn baby.

Seeing these babies in that situation is difficult for some photographers. But a lot of our photographers will go in and know they have a job to do and know that this is so healing for the families that they just go in and do their job, just like a doctor or nurse. And we have family after family after family thanking us so much because now they have images that they feel more comfortable sharing with their families or sharing on social media. While these families, of course, their baby is beautiful regardless of what we do with the photographs, it's just something that they feel more comfortable sharing.

NILMDTS is hosting its virtual Remembrance Walk on Saturday. The organization is also looking to add volunteer photographers to the program.

This conversation is part of KUNC’s Colorado Edition for April 29. You can find the full episode here.

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