Too Powerful To Not Be Seen

The Profound Grief of the Loss of a Child

Sometimes I ponder different subjects for my blog and when I come up with an idea I’ll start an article with the expectation that I’ll return to it later and finish it up.

That approach to writing works about one third of the time. More often than not though, my blog posts are spontaneous in nature. Today’s blog post is of the spontaneous type.

It began a few days ago when I realized that I had a catalog of image files from 2007 and 2008 that had somehow corrupted. The catalog was full of photographs I took while doing volunteer photography for a non-profit named Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep. Fortunately, I had backups on DVD from those sessions so I was able to recover all of the lost photographs from those sessions.

It was while browsing those recovered photographs that the inspiration for this post came to me.  Spur of the moment.

Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep was founded in  2005 by Cheryl Haggard and Sandy Puc. Cheryl’s newborn child was dying and Sandy was asked to photograph her baby. Together, the two formed the non-profit as a means of helping grieving parents turn a profoundly sad event into a loving memory by providing remembrance portraits to parents experiencing the death of a baby.  I volunteered my services as a photographer to the organization in 2007 and continued working with grieving parents through 2008. When I was a volunteer, it was still a small operation based from Sandy’s portrait studio in Littleton. We were expanding to Fort Collins and Colorado Springs.  Today, NILMDTS has grown dramatically in size and scope. A job well done and a subject worth pursuing in my honest opinion.

At the time, the volunteer photographers were primarily in the Denver area. The basic program was we would put our name on the list of volunteers and when the organization was contacted by one of the local hospitals, a photographer would be available to attend to the parents needs at the time of or shortly after their child’s death. We took intimate photographs for the parents and provided a disk of images free of charge. Nothing was done for profit or financial gain.

I first became aware of this organization when Standish Lauder of the Denver Darkroom was explaining it to me at dinner one evening.

“There’s a group of photographers here in Denver taking photographs of dead babies” he said.

Standish was intrigued and he was conflicted about the nature of this type of work.  I investigated the subject and decided to volunteer my services.

One may consider this as a macabre subject, but let me assure you that every parent and family member I worked with were very grateful and profoundly affected by this experience. I always felt pride in knowing that in some small way I helped these families deal with their darkest moment in life and I always felt honored to be allowed to be a part of their very personal moment. The death of their child

Sandy was kind enough to give training sessions at her studio for volunteer photographers so she could explain how she approached these things from a photographers standpoint. It was Sandy who defined this work and how to do it.

Today’s photograph is one taken during my very first photographic session for NILMDTS.

When I first arrived at the hospital I had no clue what to expect. I was nervous and conflicted about how I would deal with this subject matter. The parents were in their hospital room with their child who had passed away only moments before I got there.  I examined the room and used a large black blanket to mask the background to give me a non distracting backdrop. The rest of the shoot was done in real time by hand holding the camera with a hot shoe flash. Nothing was staged, I just sat quietly in the room with the family while they said goodbye to the newborn infant.

The resulting photographs were profoundly poignant. I remember crying the entire time I was photographing this couple. I was never able to get through one of these sessions without breaking down. I never let the parents see it though. I’d sneak off to the nearest bathroom and bawl my brains out while I recovered my composure.

To this day, it’s still hard for me to look at this work, but I know in my heart that I was proud of it and that it gave many grieving couples a happy memory from the most saddest of events. One of the mothers’ I photographed many years ago went on to be a volunteer photographer herself, that is how emotionally engrossing this subject is.

This particular couple were kind enough to give me permission to publicly display their most private moment.

This is the only photograph I’ve ever displayed and this is only the third time it’s been on display to the public since that day.

The first time it was on display in a gallery for a month. I received so many letters from visitors from the gallery, all sharing the emotions they felt when viewing the photograph. I knew it was a very powerful image and these letters confirmed it.

Once I saw it in the catalog I was recovering, I knew I had to make a blog entry and show it to the world one more time.

It’s too powerful to not be seen.

Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep is still out there, some 14 years later. There are probably thousands of volunteer photographers doing this type of work around the world. If you are a photographer looking for a way to give back to your community, NILMDTS is accepting applications for volunteers.

My hat goes off to Cheryl Haggard and Sandy Puc. They started something meaningful in 2005 and it continues to this day.

Well done ladies.