A very wise friend once told me, “People don’t put bumper stickers on their cars to tell the world who they are. They use bumper stickers to tell themselves who they are.”
And as silly as that statement may seem, I’ve found it to be incredibly true about most things we do. We think we’re communicating with the world at large, but our most insistent communication occurs with the self inside our own skin.
This applies to photography, too. In every photograph we make for another person, a bit of our own history bleeds through.
With every image we create to tell someone else’s story, a piece of our own is revealed.
As you read the following story, consider how your own life experiences influence your work; and how your very-human, very-real work can offer comfort – even in the midst of unspeakable sorrow.
This is the final story in our three-part series honoring the photographers who are giving back through photography by gently and artfully photographing the most excruciating loss a family may ever endure.*
Here is Sharon’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 first learned of Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep at a newborn photography workshop.
“Their volunteer video was beautiful and amazing and painful all at the same time, and I watched with tears streaming down my cheeks.
“I was watching the video, but I was seeing the face of my infant daughter as I held her the day she died – very suddenly and unexpectedly – on December 1, 1982.
“I didn’t own a camera in 1982, but I was blessed, because a photographer-friend came to visit when Cassandra was six weeks old. She took beautiful photos of my baby and me together. Believe me when I say: those portraits are my greatest treasure.
“There really is no greater sorrow than the loss of a child. The days and weeks following her death were awful, and no one seemed to understand our loss.
“There weren’t any words that could adequately convey the depth of my sorrow, and there wasn’t anyone I knew who could really understand me, even if I could find the words.
“People said some of the most ignorant and hurtful things to me thinking they were being helpful.
“They all boiled down to the same two sentiments: ‘Well, at least she died before you had the chance to really get attached to her,’ or, ‘Be thankful she died as an infant. Think of how much worse it would be if you had years and years of memories and then you lost her!’
“It was like a punch in the face every time.
Photo: RYA DUNCKLEE
“There was an everlasting sting knowing others viewed Cassandra’s death as more of a disappointment than a significant loss.
“Like it or not, life moves on and carries us further and further away from the child we lost.
“Eventually, we had three more children, and by every measure, we were a happy family. My husband and I relished all the joyous moments parents are meant to have with their babies, and we were grateful for each and every one. Yet, for every holiday and family photo, there was a missing child. She will always be the missing member of our family.
“Years later I was called into full-time ministry.
“As a pastor, I ministered to people who were suffering from all kinds of pain and loss.
“Being intimately familiar with grief made me able to console and comfort them in meaningful ways. I certainly knew what NOT to say in moments of sorrow. I attended to the dying and held their hands as they drew their last breath. I presided over their funerals and felt grateful that my own loss somehow helped me meet the needs of those who were left behind.
“In 2007 I took an extended leave from ministry and spent some time indulging my passion for photography. By 2009 I’d built a business. I especially enjoyed photographing births and newborns. That’s what brought me to the newborn photography workshop that night.
“As I watched the video, I knew I should volunteer for Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep.
“Who could possibly be more qualified? As a minister and photographer and someone who had lost an infant, how could I say no? But that was the reason for my tears: I could not bring myself to say yes.
“I felt selfish, but all I could think about was how painful it would be to hold a deceased baby in my arms again. I just couldn’t imagine having enough strength to get through it. In my imagination, I saw myself crumpled in a corner of the hospital room, clutching my camera, in a puddle of useless tears.
“So, I didn’t say yes to the call for photographers that night. I couldn’t even talk about it.
“I cried myself to sleep when I got home. I felt such anguish over my decision. I wanted to help, but I just knew I couldn’t get through a session without falling apart.
“Over the next two weeks I found myself thinking about Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep with every distracted moment. I began to wonder if – maybe – I could do it. I thought about how meaningful it would be to care for grieving parents from behind my camera lens.
“I thought about how much my photos of Cassandra meant to me even decades after her death.
“Wouldn’t it be amazing to give that same treasure to parents who otherwise wouldn’t have any photographs at all? How could I not volunteer for Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep?
“I went to the website and signed up that day.
“I thought I would get the chance to shadow another photographer before taking a call on my own, but that’s not how it played out in my case.
“Soon after my name was added to the volunteer list, I got a call from a nurse who said there was a family in need of a Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep session.
“She asked if I could come right away. I swallowed hard and said, “I’ll be there within the hour.”
Photo: RYA DUNCKLEE
“Fortunately, I had read the handbook and completed a few practice sessions with a small porcelain doll in my studio. But I had never seen it done for real before. There weren’t even any how-to videos on YouTube yet.
“I gathered my camera, portable softbox, and a light stand, and headed for the hospital. Nervous? You bet! It was a brand of performance anxiety I’d never before experienced. I was afraid I wouldn’t be good enough. I was afraid I would cry. I was afraid I would do something wrong.
“When I arrived at the maternity ward I introduced myself to the nurse and followed her into the room where the family was gathered around the baby.
“They were Spanish-speaking and I am not, but I set my equipment down and walked up to the bed where the mother was holding her tiny son. I gently touched her arm and told her my name. Then I placed my hand over the hand holding the baby and spoke very softly as I said, ‘I’m so sorry for your loss.’
“I turned to the father and reached out my hand to clasp his. I didn’t shake it; I just held it for a moment and told him, as well, ‘I’m so sorry.’
“Without the convenience of speaking the same language, I used a bit of pantomime to guide the family members into positions and poses. I remembered all three of the Spanish words I’d learned as a kid. Thankfully, one was ‘beso,’ which means ‘kiss.’
“I touched my finger to my forehead and spoke to the parents: “Papa, beso mama here. Mama, beso baby here.”
“The baby boy was born prematurely, with some physical defects. I could sense the mother was uncomfortable, so I used my other Spanish word: ‘bonita,’ which means ‘pretty.’ I was so focused on making her more comfortable that my own fears took a back seat.
“That was the key: remembering I was there for them helped me take my eyes off myself and all the wild imaginings I had about what it would be like to hold or photograph a deceased infant.
“I looked at the baby as I would any sleeping infant.
“Knowing it would help calm the room, I moved slowly and quietly. This is one of those times when what you generate physically and emotionally is more important than anything you could say.
“The parents I serve through Now I lay Me Down To Sleep are likely feeling that their whole world has fallen apart.
“Every dream they had for their future has just come crashing down, and, sadly, they are acutely aware that just down the hall are lots of healthy newborns being cuddled by happy parents.
“Everybody handles grief differently, so I make sure my body language and tone align with theirs. I introduce myself to the parents, then to everyone else in the room. If I feel like it would be welcomed, I rest my hand on the mom’s arm or leg while I talk to her. Not everyone wants to be touched, so I’m very careful about this.
“I smile reassuringly, speak quietly, and share an overview of what I plan to do, making sure they understand there will be no charge for anything.
Photo: RYA DUNCKLEE
“Some parents are very reluctant to pose with the baby, so I make sure they know we’ll only do what they are comfortable with, and that we can stop at anytime. I let them know I am happy to accommodate any requests they may have, but that I have plenty of ideas of my own, as well. It’s hard for grieving parents to think creatively, and I don’t want them worrying that I expect them to direct me.
“I gently inform that all their images will be either black and white or sepia-toned, and that I will minimize or retouch anything that wouldn’t be there had Baby been born healthy – such as discolorations and skin tears.
“Next, I present the consent form and briefly explain each section, then hand it to them with a pen. If there isn’t a second parent, I fill it out at bedside to make it easy on Mom.
“I always ask if they are planning a memorial for the baby. Most parents haven’t considered that yet, but I assure them that I will get some images to them in time for a service should they decide to have one. Otherwise, it will take me a couple of weeks to finish their photographs.
“Then I ask if I may hold the baby. They always say yes.
“I hold and look at the baby in the exact same way I would any newborn. I uncover the baby’s head and, speaking directly to the baby, talk about how beautiful their hair is, how cute their ears are, how long their fingers are… I tell the baby how much Mommy and Daddy are going to love having something special to remember them by.
“When the parents see me holding and handling the baby like a baby, they tend to stop weeping and just watch.
“I begin with photographs of the baby alone, using with any special blankets or outfits the parents have, and supplementing with those I bring along. I ask questions every step of the way to make sure I’m on the right track with them emotionally.
“ ‘Would you like to dress baby or would you like me to?’
“ ‘What do you think of this blanket?’
“I want to demonstrate to the parents that I know the depth of their loss is immeasurable. But I do it with the way I touch, hold, move, and photograph their baby, not with words. Words wouldn’t help anyway.
“I NEVER talk to the parents about my own loss. I believe this would be a huge mistake. We’re there to tend to their sorrow and loss, not force them to deal with ours. There will be plenty of time for them to commiserate with other people about their losses – but today is not the day.
“I also never talk about my faith.
“I am a pastor, so of course I always pray before entering the room. I always pray silently throughout the sessions, and I remember the families in my prayers long after. But it’s very risky to bring up faith in the presence of someone who is most likely angry with God on the day their baby died.
Photo: RYA DUNCKLEE
“There have only been a couple of times when a session became too overwhelming for me.
“Once was when the baby was still living, but visibly suffering. Another was when the baby had just been removed from life-support, and her grandmother was rocking her and singing a lullaby as she passed away. I couldn’t keep the tears from coming.
“There have been plenty of times where there were tears in my eyes while I photographed, and I don’t think the family is put off by that. I think it may even bless them to know we care that deeply. But we have to keep things in check so we can continue to do what we came to do.
“When I first started doing Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep sessions, I took along everything but the kitchen sink. But I soon found that less is more.
- Though I always bring a stand for my light, there is rarely enough room to set one up.
- If I must use a flash, I use a portable 12” softbox on my speedlight with a sync cord off-camera. I either hold it in my hand, or put the flash on a monopod.
- My preferred light source is a dimmable LED light bank that fits on a stand or monopod. I have found it to be easier and less intrusive than a flash.
- I bring along my LumeCube because it is quite versatile – very small, powerful, and dimmable.
- For my cell phone, I just purchased a beauty ring set-up. It’s the perfect size for lighting Baby only, while leaving everything else in shadow.
- As for clothing, I wear a Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep shirt and/or a lanyard around my neck with the Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep badge printed from the website.
“After a session, I create a slideshow with music…
…and upload it to an unlisted YouTube channel so the family can view and share it – even with family far away. Once I’ve completed the slideshow, I burn it to a DVD along with a folder containing the edited images.
“I also like to design a single-sided 5×7 birth announcement…
…and include it in the email telling the parents their DVD and slideshow are ready. Some families will print the birth announcement to share at the memorial, or post it on Facebook to help them tell the story of loss.
“Finally, since Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep interfaces with ShootProof…
…I’m able to give each family a professional online gallery that never expires. I’m proud to tell families that ShootProof provides free galleries and discounted, professional-quality prints to Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep families. Furthermore, ShootProof galleries provide the perfect backup solution in case something ever happens to my computer.
Photo: RYA DUNCKLEE
“When we hear of a tragedy, most of us are eager to help.
But beyond a casserole for the memorial, there so rarely is anything we can do to ease these families’ suffering. It’s an awful and helpless feeling to want to help when you can’t.
“By giving back through photography as a Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep volunteer, you never have to feel that way. We get to personally, meaningfully help ease a family’s pain. We get to be the calming presence in the hospital room, because our confidence and care help them relax. We get to leave a lasting impression of love and service from a stranger who cares. We get to provide families with a tangible memory of their child.
“We get to physically demonstrate how much we believe their baby mattered.
“We silently commiserate, and validate their deep and crushing loss. We mirror their sorrow. We reflect and honor their grief at having lost their child and the future they dreamed of.
“I’ve returned to ministry, so I don’t photograph full-time anymore, however…
“I will continue to volunteer with Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep as long as I possibly can.”
– Sharon Bollum, volunteer photographer for Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep
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.
Are you giving back through photography? Share HOW in the comments below.
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