The world’s greatest photographers have been defined in many ways: by their technical prowess, their storytelling capabilities, where they’ve been published, who they’ve photographed, how much money they’ve earned…
But the very definition of success is an ever-fluid, deeply personal determination.
Here at ShootProof, we believe the greatest photographers are those whose photography is making the world better, brighter, and more bearable for folks in need.
Some photograph animals in need of rescue, create images at Help Portrait events, or contribute a percentage of every sale to a nonprofit that matters deeply to them. Others, like Cincinatti photographer Jennifer Smith, volunteer their time with Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep. Through Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep, Jen provides photographs of stillborn babies and newborns for whom death is imminent.
The photographs are completely free, and the ShootProof galleries through which they’re shared never expire.
This is the second story in a three-part series honoring the world’s greatest photographers: photographers like Jen, who gently and artfully photograph the most excruciating loss a family may ever endure.*
Here is Jen’s story…
*TRIGGER WARNING: This series includes true stories of loss, grief, and the natural deaths of infant children. There are no photographs of these children, but the stories themselves may be too intense for some readers. Please use discretion and be gentle with yourself.
“I began volunteering with Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep in the spring of 2017
– that was a couple months after my husband and I picked up our cameras again and started shooting professionally.
“I had called hospitals, volunteering to photograph newborns in the NICU, but I was denied repeatedly. Then, on a Friday, I received an email from my Cincinnati camera club, announcing that the Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep organization would be in town the following Monday. I ended up going to the event, and it just felt right to start volunteering. Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep was exactly what I was looking for.”
Photo by RYA DUNCKLEE
Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep ensures that all of their volunteer photographers are trained and equipped to handle the intense environment in which they’ll be working. Most new volunteers learn by shadowing experienced volunteers at a series of hospital sessions. Since the family is undergoing extreme stress, it’s critical that each volunteer photographer feel as prepared as possible.
“My first shadowing session was for a baby girl who had died.
“I was present as the lead photographer shared the paperwork with the parents and explained how the session would proceed. I helped her pose the baby in the hospital bassinet, where we added some personal family belongings. Both parents held their little one for photos. There were plenty of tears, but it was beautiful.”
Photo by RYA DUNCKLEE
Although each Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep session is 100% free of charge, the organization must still obtain permission and gather information from the family whose child is being photographed. This business routine could be an uncomfortable, sterile process; but photographers infuse compassion into every interaction. That capacity for empathy is what makes giving photographers the greatest photographers.
“Now I feel comfortable photographing each session on my own.
“I enter the hospital room slowly, mirroring the postures and emotions I see. I smile, introduce myself, and try to make solid eye contact with the mom or dad.
“Having my paperwork easily available makes it easy to explain why I’m there. It puts the family at ease to hear the words “I volunteer,” and “everything I do here today is free,” and “you’ll receive the high-res images as well.”
“They know I’m not there to sell anything, and that I don’t want anything from them. Instead, I’m there for them.
“Once the family is comfortable, we begin thinking about the kinds of photos they’d like of their baby, and whether or not they’d like to be in the photos, too.
“I stay attuned to the emotions in the room, and if things become too intense I offer a break, or simply alter the situation by saying, “I got what we needed, we can put Baby down now.”
Photo by RYA DUNCKLEE
Many Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep photographers have their own experiences with child and pregnancy loss – whether their own or someone close to them. This personal history can make certain hospital sessions overwhelming for the photographer, and each volunteer learns to handle their emotions in their own way.
“Quite a few sessions have hit very close to home for me, personally.
“I met one couple who barely got out of the hospital bed. The room was dark, and they didn’t speak much. Their baby was in another room, so I waited silently while the dad completed the necessary paperwork, then I took photos down the hall.
“When I’m feeling a bit overwhelmed, I tend to move more slowly and concentrate on my breathing. I’ll turn around and wash my hands in the sink, put on gloves, or ask the nurse a question – anything that I can do to slow down, take it in, and accept the moment.
“Now, if I know I’m going to a Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep session, I allow myself quite a bit of quiet time before I even leave for the shoot. I’ll meditate, or pray for the family. My heart stays with them, for sure.
“I work with minimal equipment so I can keep things moving and focused.
- It’s best to wear everyday, comfortable clothing.
- My camera body and a 24-70mm lens do the trick!
- I used to bring a reflector, but it was too large and invasive.
- Natural light during day shoots is perfect.
- If it’s dark, I ask a nurse to hold my off-camera flash with a little soft box.
- Recently, I used a flashlight with a color-gel and white paper diffuser. Light is light!
“Immediately after a session, while events are fresh in my mind, I post the paperwork and log the shoot via the Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep website. Over the next few weeks, I edit the photos with a bit of help from a retouching artist, and create the family’s ShootProof gallery.
“When I share the gallery with the family, email templates are already in place so I don’t have to stress about the wording or worry about forgetting any details. I just add a personal message and hit send.
“One family I photographed didn’t have email or a computer, though, so I printed the photos and mailed them to the family. But if that family does get a computer in the future?
“Their ShootProof gallery will always be there; Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep galleries never expire.”
– Jennifer Smith, volunteer photographer for Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep
Photo by RYA DUNCKLEE
Talented Florida photographer Rya Duncklee is on our list of Greatest Photographers for many reasons, one of which is her contribution to this series. Rya graciously created the Empty Nursery photographs that illustrate these stories, utilizing her own long-awaited daughter’s nursery. She shared the following about her own desire to use her photography to better the world…
“It is significant to draw attention to an organization like Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep because I don’t think people are aware of how many families go through these types of experiences.
“I chose to contribute to this project by providing images because I too have experienced loss. I can relate.
“Before the birth of my daughter in 2017, we experienced back-to-back miscarriages and nearly three years of trying with no luck. To me, these photographs represent hope and joy. They serve as a reminder to me of struggle, and that moments are fleeting.”
– Rya Duncklee, contributing photographer for ShootProof and Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep
Printed photo by RYA DUNCKLEE of her long-awaited, much-adored, healthy daughter.
No matter where you are or what issues matter most to you, join the ranks of the industry’s greatest photographers by giving back. Make our world a little better, a little brighter, and a little more bearable for someone in need.
Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep has over 1,700 active photographers around the world, reaches every state in the United States, and has been present in 40 countries worldwide. They currently serve families in the U.S., Canada, Ireland, the U.K., Germany, Switzerland, Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, and South Africa.
Tell us how you’re impacting your community and the world at large with your photography!
Created by: ANNE SIMONE and THREE LITTLE PHOTO by Jennifer Smith | Photographs by: RIA DUNCKLEE | In collaboration with: NOW I LAY ME DOWN TO SLEEP
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