Taking the Most Heart Breaking Photos
There were three different calls from the hospital this morning- a bereavement nurse, a doula, and a mother going into labor who was already in mourning. All three were about the same baby girl who would only be making a brief stop in this world before continuing on to the next.
It is somewhat helpful to have a heads up that you will be needed at the hospital later on in the day to take meaningful portraits for the family. I made sure my camera gear was packed and my batteries were charged. I cleared my schedule as much as possible. I let my wife know what was facing me and she prayed over me before she left for work to do similar care as a nurse herself. At the same time being forewarned about a dying child casts a shadow over the day that is impossible to see beyond.
I spent most of the day at my computer processing photos from previous photo shoots. In the background I tried music, podcasts and even recorded game shows from my childhood that normally make me happy. All the while I’m waiting for the phone to ring, dreading what that sound will mean although I know my heart is willing to answer.
The doula called late this afternoon when the baby was born. She passed very quickly. The parents were ready for me to come to the hospital and wanted me to get photos of their two other children meeting their baby sister for the first and last time.
I hurried across town and got there probably too fast. The baby was wrapped in a blanket, still fresh from birth, and her dad was holding her close. Mom was starting to sit up in bed and prepare herself for her other two children. I thought about excusing myself until they were ready for the siblings to arrive but then I remembered the three calls I received in succession this morning and I decided I was supposed to be present even if it wasn’t comfortable. Sacred ground often feels uncomfortable.
I offered light. Both parents said yes so the nurse pushed the button to open the blinds and let some natural brightness into the very dark room. I lifted my camera and captured the image of the dad sitting in front of the window treasuring this little life that had already made a lasting impact on his. A few minutes later the nurse had created an area on mom’s bed where the baby could get cleaned up and dressed before her brother and sister paid a visit. I watched the dad observe how the nurse took a damp cloth to wipe away the vernix and blood from her birth and then reached down and began to gently bathe his baby.
I was already raw from a week of mourning in this hospital. This wasn’t the first family experiencing tragedy that I’d come alongside and it wasn’t the first baby I was photographing - it was my fourth. I couldn’t hold back the tears any longer and I shamelessly and quietly wept as I observed the loving actions of this father. I was so glad I hadn’t left their room.
When the siblings arrived I moved around the room capturing them interact with their parents and their baby sister. The photo shoot went beyond what my contract with the national agency I volunteer for expects or asks. I have found this is normal. While you can attempt to put parameters around ‘care’ and what you can provide in legacy portrait work, the realities of each family’s story is unique. I explained to the parents when they handed me the signed contract what I would provide for them based on the agreement and then assured them that I would additionally provide the other photos that they were requesting and needed.
The three-year-old sister had no filters. She sat next to her mom on the bed and held her baby sister. She talked about what she would do if the baby was real and wasn’t pretend. She told her mom how she would bring her a pink binky when she cried and would kiss her over and over. Her mom gently told her that her sister was in fact very real even though they wouldn’t be bringing her home. And then the toddler bent down and kissed her sister's swollen, beautiful face.
And I clicked the shutter.