The first deceased baby I photograph, for a family from the Fraser Valley, is a boy born with anencephaly. It is the first of many, many visits I will make to BC Women's Hospital and Health Centre in Vancouver in the ebbing hours of night.
Sometimes the attending nurse will precede me into the parents' room to introduce me, but tonight's nurse does not. In hushed tones, she explains the baby's birth. She looks into my eyes and says, "Baby A was born without a brain." She pauses to let me absorb this. She starts to offer advice, then says, "But never mind, you're the expert." She pushes open the heavy delivery-room door.
What the nurse didn't realize was that this was my first call. I had been waiting five months since joining Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep as a volunteer photographer. I had never photographed a deceased baby, and worse, I had never even seen one. But I did photograph babies for a living - bouncing, kicking, wailing babies - and as a professional photographer I knew a lot about lighting and posing.
With my love of babies, volunteering for the organization was a perfect fit. I had no kids left at home, so could run to the hospital with little notice. It was a huge commitment in many ways. With editing, each session could take up to 20 hours. I'd send the family hi-resolution images on disc within weeks of the birth. And it was bound to be emotionally wrenching to witness unbridled loss and grief.
I introduce myself to the boy's family and tell them I am sorry for their loss. As tears course down the mother's face, I go over our paperwork with the father, explaining that I am a volunteer photographer for a U.S. non-profit agency. I give them a release to sign.
Then I begin the session. Part of my job is to minimize what is wrong with the setting - the lighting, the hospital gown, the equipment on the wall, dad's dishevelled T-shirt. Though the baby is dead, I coo at him, finding him tiny and adorable. This is something I do instinctively.
Far from thinking these babies are damaged and incomplete, I think they're lovely. There is always something precious to compliment - a perfect nose, a shock of wavy black hair, tiny fingernails. I may be the only person to have focused on what is right about a family's lost baby.
My comfort and softness relaxes the parents. They tell me how that second toe, longer and bent, is just like an uncle's, how she has daddy's lips. For a second, I see pride in this new addition, and it flames as brightly as their sorrow burns.
Over my five years of volunteering, I photograph babies who have died for a multitude of reasons. I also take pictures of babies in the neonatal intensive care unit, toward the end of lengthy battles, still attached to machines with tape and tubes and wires winding everywhere. And I photograph older babies and children who have been released from hospital into palliative care at a hospice.
If everyone is willing, I photograph each parent holding the baby and the baby alone, as much of him or her as the parents are comfortable seeing. If they prefer their little son or daughter dressed, I will accommodate this wish. If they want a skin-on-skin portrait, I will photograph that. If siblings and aunties and cousins and grandparents are present, I will photograph them with the little one too, and their large family groupings. Always, I take photographs of the baby's feet and hands, usually holding mom or dad's finger. I photograph parents offering their lost baby kisses.
Sometimes, I photograph a baby alone because the family is so overcome they cannot bring themselves to meet him or her. Once, I photographed a baby for an immigrant mom who was giving birth alone on Christmas Day, her husband miles away in another country.
People often ask me whether the work is draining. It is, very, and I've not only shed my share of tears, I've attended many gut-wrenching funerals. But it is also incredibly intimate work, and some of the most profound of my life's moments have been as a volunteer for Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep. Sometimes, besides medical staff, I am the only person who has shared parents' experience of their lost child, making images that will help to soothe their sore hearts.
Many people find the idea of photographing deceased children morbid, and I respect this view. But these grief-stricken parents must, for the most part, leave the hospital empty-handed. This life they dreamed of and hoped for stays behind - in the morgue. While other parents leave clutching a treasured bundle, the families I photograph take only a baby hat, footprints and handprints, and a tiny hospital bracelet. My photos are powerful. My photos are proof. They say to one and all: This life was lived, even if only in utero. This life mattered. This baby was our baby and we love him.
I hear that many parents can't bring themselves to look at the images I make. But they will be there if they need them. Five months or five years from now, they will be there, a silent memorial to a profound moment.
And sometimes, something beautiful occurs from our deep bond. Recently, a family chose me to be the photographer of their next baby, and I was able to make pictures of their grieving family becoming a new kind of family, a celebrating family. It touched me deeply.
Jane Eaton Hamilton is the author of six books and lives in Vancouver.
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