Image courtesy: Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep
In February 2005, photographer Sandy Puc’ received a call from Cheryl and Mike Haggard. The couple wanted her to photograph their baby. Maddux had been born with myotubular myopathy, a condition that prevented him from breathing, swallowing or moving on his own. Then six days old, the child was about to be removed from life support and the couple wanted a family portrait to remember the time they had been able to spend with their son. Sandy rearranged her schedule and photographed the family both while the child was on life support and afterwards, when he was free of the tubes and equipment to which he had been attached since birth.
Sandy gave the pictures to the family for free. Shortly afterwards she received another call from Cheryl who so valued the images that she wanted to start a nonprofit to help other families in the same situation. By April, they had formed Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep, a charity dedicated to providing free remembrance photography to families suffering the loss of a baby. In the seven years since then, around 25,000 families across the United States and in 35 countries around the world have been served by the organization’s network of photographers. The organization has been supported by more than 10,000 photographers and some 2,700 volunteers are active in the network now. All are volunteers who either own their own photography studios or have full-time jobs and families.
“We Only Get One Chance to Take These Photos.”
The absence of staff photographers makes scheduling shoots a challenge. While some parents may have advanced notice if life support is about to be removed or a caesarian is scheduled, photographers can struggle to rearrange their day. In most cases, however, a photographer is able to reach the hospital between two and twelve hours after receiving the call, and for those times when a photographer is unavailable, the organization also trains nurses to take the photographs themselves.
“Most of these sessions are not counted,” says Mindy Tappan, the organization’s Outreach Manager. “Therefore, it is difficult to truly measure the number of families served through NILMDTS.”
Shoots usually take between fifteen and 45 minutes but can last longer. If the parents want the photographer to document the birth or wait until after the infant is removed from life support, a session may last several hours. Those shoots are usually prearranged. Photographers need to check in at the Labor and Delivery front desk where a contact person will brief them on the family’s situation and answer any questions before they meet the family.
Image courtesy: Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep
Not all photographers are accepted. Those wanting to volunteer can submit an application (for which there’s a $10 fee) and their portfolios will then be reviewed by three people on the organization’s team to make sure that their skills are up to scratch. The final photographs should be professionally retouched and converted to black and white or sepia to create an heirloom family portrait. The level of professionalism has to be high.
“We only get one chance to take these photos,” noted Ms Tappan.
Volunteer positions stretch from affiliated photographer through photographer’s assistant to parent co-ordinator, digital retouch artists and area co-ordinator. Volunteers who are accepted receive training. The organization currently has a dozen certified trainers who travel around the US and through Canada to ensure that photographers know what to expect and what to do when they reach the hospital. Online courses are also available and cover a range of relevant topics from paperwork and hospital procedures to equipment and lighting, posing the family and what to photograph other than the baby.
Grief Counseling for Photographers
Perhaps the most important topic though is the last: taking care of yourself emotionally. In addition to the training sessions, Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep also has grief support videos available on its online forum and staff members are available for any photographer who needs to talk.
“We encourage photographers to take at least one session a year,” says Ms Tappan. “Many volunteers take more than that. It just depends on their location, and how many volunteers are in their area.”
The work may be unpaid but it’s certainly among the hardest of shoots that any photographer is likely to take on. It’s also one of the most important and a reminder of the power that a photograph can possess. Mindy Tappan notes that while parents don’t always think of getting images after the birth of a terminally sick child, they’re always glad they did. A number of parents who suffered losses before the organization was founded have told them how much they wished that they had the opportunity to photograph their lost child. The images act as more than a reminder of a baby they only knew for a short time; they help the family to grieve for their loss.
“Remembrance photography is a very important step in the healing process,” says Ms Tappan. “Photographs are one of the most precious and tangible mementos that a parent can have, showing the love and bond that was given and shared with their baby. These portraits will last for generations, and will honor and remember a tiny life that is forever loved and cherished.”
Despite the emotional difficulties involved in this kind of photography, Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep does provide a rare opportunity for photographers to take pictures that change lives and will bring real meaning to their owners. But it does more than that. The organization wasn’t set up by people with a background in charity work or running non-profits. It was created quickly and grown over the years by a photographer and a client who were passionate about bringing a service to others.
Photographers can user their cameras to deliver valuable help. But when they add their organizational skills, their time and their energy, they can also create their own non-profits that bring a whole new level of meaning to their lives as photographers.