Six days before her due date, a pregnant Seattle woman learned during a routine doctor’s appointment that her baby no longer had a heartbeat. She had lost her son to a virus that can be deadly to fetuses.
The mother decided to deliver him naturally, rather than via caesarean section. Then she faced another decision: Would she like a professional photographer to capture the few moments she would have with her stillborn son?
A photo shoot with a dead baby may sound morbid, especially in a culture that tends to be uncomfortable with death. But remembrance photography provides grieving parents with lasting memories of their children who lived so briefly that little else exists to remember them by. Parents say that the professional images are easier to look at than the ones they took themselves.
“The photos validate the experience of the parents, and prove the baby existed when oftentimes there are so few memories and things to show,” said Faustine Dufka, a University of Washington anthropology student, whose undergraduate honors thesis explored the role of remembrance photography in parental grief.
People will tell mothers: “It’s OK, you’ll be a mom again one day,” Dufka said. “But no, they are still a parent, even if their baby has died, and the photographs help to confirm that parental identity. And to validate that their baby’s life, no matter how brief, was a life.”
Dufka investigated remembrance photography as a way to reveal how contemporary families cope with infant death. She interviewed parents, photographers and health care workers and volunteered at the Seattle-based nonprofit Soulumination, which provides free photography services to families with children 18 years old and younger facing life-threatening illnesses.
“Faustine’s thesis is medical anthropology at its best,” said Daniel Hoffman, a UW associate professor of anthropology and faculty adviser to Dufka’s project. “She used careful observation to explore a real problem: How people experience and make sense of a personal tragedy within a larger social and medical context that doesn’t generally honor or assist them in grief.”
A couple of months after her son was born, the Seattle mother told Dufka that she agreed right away to a photo shoot with the nonprofit Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep, which is a nationwide network of photographers providing free remembrance photography services. When she got the CD of photos, the mother was surprised by their beauty – she told Dufka that she didn’t think it was possible for the photos to turn out so well since they were taken in a hospital.
For the mother “the photos were something to look forward to after leaving the hospital empty-handed,” Dufka said. The mother also kept a few objects her son had touched, such as a blanket he was wrapped in immediately after his birth.
The other five parents Dufka interviewed recalled similar attachments to the photos. Their babies lived from 10 minutes to 7 months after birth, dying from lethal genetic variations, trauma during birth and other reasons. In some cases their photos portray the few moments they had as a family, with the newborn surrounded by loved ones, including parents, siblings and grandparents.
The parents display the photos at home and used them at memorial services. One father even had an image of his baby tattooed on his arm.
“It’s easier to talk about something if you have a photo to share,” Dufka said. Photos “are a gateway to bringing up memories of the deceased. For siblings who weren’t there or were too young to remember, photos can help parents talk about and explain what happened.”
Photos the parents took themselves on phones or personal cameras depicted the reality almost too vividly, the parents told Dufka.
“We do have pictures of when he died that [my husband] took … before the hospice nurse came,” one mother told Dufka. “I can’t look at those … He’s blue, you know, he’s lifeless and he’s blue.”
Remembrance photographers use black-and-white and sepia tones to disguise how sick the babies can look. They use certain angles or – usually at the parents’ request – airbrush out hospital equipment. For babies who have died, photographers use poses to make it look like the baby is simply sleeping.
“I’m always looking for those sort of moments that just shine, whether the child’s alone or close with the parent,” Lynette Johnson, founder of Soulumination, told Dufka. “I’m looking for something timeless and beautiful, just something you will always treasure.”
The accompanying photo gallery includes comments from photographers interviewed by Dufka about the techniques they use in remembrance photography.
Mourning and post-mortem photography used to have a more visible presence in American culture, Dufka points out in her thesis. In the 1800s, it was socially acceptable to display photos of deceased individuals, including images of the body posed to look asleep on a sofa or a close-up portrait.
Professional post-mortem photography went out of fashion in the 20th century, possibly because medical advances encouraged prolonging life and denying death. Public pain and mourning became taboo, according to research Dufka references in her thesis, and families moved toward taking their own photos of deceased loved ones and keeping the images private.
Could this be changing now that technology makes taking and sharing photos so easy, and that photography has become one way to legitimize an experience and create a memory? The resurgence of photography in the context of loss, Dufka believes, could signal a change in the way death and dying are talked about and dealt with in our society.
“I think it’s really happening, I think there’s a real change,” Johnson told Dufka. “People are not stepping back from loss like they used to.”
It’s possible, though, that Dufka’s interviews don’t reflect all parents’ responses to remembrance photos. Since she interviewed parents who were willing to speak about their experiences, her sample of parents could sway more toward those who have experienced benefits of the photos and who have reached a stage of grieving where they can talk about their child’s death.
“Every individual moves through their process of grieving very differently,” Dufka said. “The main purpose of this research is not to prove whether or not remembrance photography is actually beneficial to all parents, but rather to understand the different ways in which these types of photographs are used by bereaved parents in the process of mourning.”
Dufka said that walking through that pain with parents who have lost a baby has helped her understand grief from their point of view. She plans to go to medical school, and believes her project will help her talk about death with her patients and their families.
In her study, Faustine Dufka describes different approaches photographers use in remembrance photography. Photo courtesy of Soulumination. Soulumination
Remembrance photographers, such as those working with Soulumination, strive for documentary-style photos that aren’t overly-posed and are timeless. They usually use black-and-white or sepia tones. Photo courtesy of Soulumination. Soulumination
Another photographer said, "We're interested in giving something that's easier to view, has some comfort to it, that creates some sense of peace, that's simple, beautiful to look at, and is more representative of how things would've been had the day gone the way it was supposed to go." Photo courtesy of Soulumination. Soulumination
“What I want … is to get the kind of images that [the parents] would've had if that baby had been born alive and we had brought that baby to the studio for newborn portraits,” a photographer told Dufka. Photo courtesy of Soulumination. Soulumination
Another photographer stressed the importance of capturing details that parents will want to see in the future when their memories begin to fade: “[I] will do a lot of photos with just faces … I really try and do that so they can see all the little details of their baby … All of that little stuff that will start to fade you can relive by looking at the pictures again.” Photo courtesy of Soulumination. Soulumination
Often times parents will ask the photographers to take pictures after their child has been taken off of life-support, Dufka found. These photos may be the only time parents have an unobstructed view of the baby. “Those are the pictures they've posted on Facebook … because it's a clear view of that baby's face, and not looking so sick,” a Soulumination photographer said. Photo courtesy of Soulumination. Soulumination
Focusing on the eyes, according to one of the Soulumination photographers, can reveal the essence of the child. “I think it's important as much as possible to focus on the eyes … and trying if possible to get pictures that capture that child's details or personality and not on them being ill.” Photo courtesy of Soulumination. Soulumination
“If the baby is fully clothed I will always try and get them to have the baby undressed, because you know they don't realize that they're not gonna see that baby again. And they don't only just want to see their baby in this outfit, they want to see their belly and their bellybutton, and their ears and their earlobes and their toes…,” one of the photographers said. Photo courtesy of Soulumination. Soulumination
One Soulumination photographer said, “I really do try and get when they're touching their child … because they will look back and say, ‘oh my gosh, I can remember what that felt like when the baby was grabbing my hand, or when I was kissing their cheek, or when I was really snuggled in.’” Photo courtesy of Soulumination. Soulumination
Sometimes parents have requests about specific shots they would like the photographer to capture. For example, a father might ask the photographer to take a few photographs where the baby is laying on his arm. Photo courtesy of Soulumination. Soulumination
A Soulumination photographer described the techniques she uses to bring the parents in close to their child. “We want them in close, we want them in tight, I wanna be able to see the child or baby's face, which is not always easy. If the child can't be moved, if they're on a bed, then it's about the parents coming on over the bed … I get them to look at each other, and it’s just as simple as asking them, you know, ‘turn and look at your daughter,’ or ‘can you whisper something to them,’ that brings the face right in to the ear.” Photo courtesy of Soulumination. Soulumination
Sometimes parents don’t want to be photographed with their baby. One photographer describes how she handles this scenario: “So I just let them know that as bad as they feel, and as raw as the day is, that there will come a day where it isn't quite as raw, and I don’t ever want them to regret not at least having one picture of their hand holding their baby's hand. And generally that does it, right there ... “ Photo courtesy of Soulumination. Soulumination
A photographer with Soulumination explained how she looks for a moment when the loved one is kissing or holding the child, “even if sometimes there's a tear, you know, it's that moment of tenderness, and it's just something that kind of blows you away when you see it.” Photo courtesy of Soulumination. Soulumination
“There's just something about really getting in and seeing their face, it’s so important to me that the family has some really close up pictures of their child's face and their expressions,” a Soulumination photographer told Dufka. Photo courtesy of Soulumination. Soulumination