Since 2014, ShootProof has collaborated with Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep to provide free online galleries to families devastated by the death of a newborn baby. The photographers who volunteer with Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep donate their time, talent, and compassion, providing photographs of stillborn babies and newborns for whom death is imminent.
If the words are hard to read, they are even harder to live. But parents do, every day. And for some grieving families, the dedicated photographers of Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep are there to provide a lasting memento of their beloved baby before their child is laid to rest.
This is the first story in a three-part series honoring the photographers who gently and artfully photograph the most excruciating loss a family may ever endure.*
This is Toni’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 became a volunteer photographer with Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep in 2017.
“I thought about doing it for years, but was always worried that I wouldn’t be able to do a session without sobbing as much as (or more than) the families I was supposed to be helping. Some of my own family members were even worried; they didn’t think I could handle the sorrow.
“Then my mom shared a story with me. In 1953, her mother (my grandmother) had a baby boy who only lived for a few hours. My grandmother was in the hospital and didn’t even get to attend her baby’s funeral.
“It was horrible that they whisked the baby away, my grandmother had said, burying him before she had time with him. My mother and her sisters never even saw their baby brother.
“Tears flows as my mom told me how much it would have changed my grandmother’s life to have even one picture of her baby boy. It would have comforted her throughout her life. That night, I went home and applied to become a Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep volunteer photographer.
Photo: RYA DUNCKLEE
“My first session was a full-term baby boy.
“It was three days before his due date. His mother had not felt him move since the night before, so she went into the hospital. They learned that he had passed.
“They were a young couple. It was their first baby.
“Before the session, I watched the training videos provided by Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep, and read other photographers’ posts in the private Facebook group. Thank heaven for those resources. Because of the training, I was prepared for the black lips on the beautiful baby, and for the torn and peeling skin.
“I concentrated on capturing the love the couple had for each other and for their baby boy, and I focused on the images they would have of their baby – images that would help them remember his life.
“The baby had passed away, and that I couldn’t change that. But I could give the family something to help them heal.
Photo: RYA DUNCKLEE
“I did one session where they removed life support from a baby who was 13 months old, but had never left the hospital. That was the hardest session I have ever photographed, but I am so grateful I was able to do it for the family.
“They wanted to take their baby outside. It was his first time out of the hospital. The hospital had a garden, so they were able to wheel his bed outside.
“As the wind blew his hair, he smiled. I photographed him looking around outside, reaching his hand toward his grandparents’ faces. And I captured images of his mother leaning over him and singing to him. I captured the love he brought to the world, and the love he would take with him.
“During that session, I cried from behind my camera. I wiped tears away and kept shooting. Then when I edited, I cried and cried. But I am still so glad I was able to do something to help that family.
“When a death occurs, no matter how close you are to the surviving members of the family, you want to help. THIS is something I can do to help.
Photos: RYA DUNCKLEE
Every volunteer photographer for Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep undergoes a rigorous application process before being accepted into the program. The organization provides training and guidance materials, including education on how the photographers should interact with grieving families.
Each photographer, however, brings her or his individual touch to the experience. They infuse their own life experience, personal history, and unique gifts to make the session as tender and healing as possible.
This is Toni’s approach…
“When I first walk into a room, I greet everyone there.
“Usually there are a lot of people. I walk up to the parents, and I introduce myself: ‘I’m Toni Cox with Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep, and I am so sorry to meet under these circumstances. There is some paperwork we’ll need to get completed before we can begin; I apologize.
“Then I hand the birth partner a clipboard with paperwork and turn to get my camera. After the paperwork is finished, I talk to the family about their hopes for photos – do they have any in mind or should I just do my thing?
“They always say, “do your thing.” But as we go through the session, I help them feel comfortable asking me for specific shots as they think of them.
“I always ask before I touch the baby. I always tell them what I am going to do before I do it.
Photo: RYA DUNCKLEE
“Sometimes the entire room is sobbing. I have to take deep breaths and push through.
“I am there to get pictures of the love, not the sorrow.
“Sometimes they go hand in hand, and that is ok, but I try to not get so much of the horror. They are going to remember that part.
“When the parents cry and apologize, I tell them I am so sorry, and that it’s ok to cry. I’ll give them a moment to compose themselves, then keep going. I’m there to serve the family, so I always offer to capture any photos they want.
“After the session, I share the photos with the family through my ShootProof account, which I have through Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep. The pictures will be there – always – waiting for the family when they are ready to view them or share them.
Photos: RYA DUNCKLEE
“So far, I have never done a session that was unbearable for me. If one did become unbearable, I think I would excuse myself from the room and quietly compose myself.
“My goal is always to support the families I meet. They have already suffered so much. I’m there to help them through the gift of remembrance photography.
“I want the images I capture to help them heal.”
– Toni Cox, volunteer photographer for Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep
How does this perspective of photography impact the way you view your own work?
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.
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