October 15 is National Pregnancy and Infant Loss Remembrance Day. If you are a professional who works with expecting families, you no doubt will at some point have a family who suffers a loss during their pregnancy, a stillbirth or the death of their newborn in the days and weeks after birth. I wanted to share with Science & Sensibility readers a wonderful organization dedicated to honoring the loss or short life of a baby. Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep is a non-profit organization of photographers dedicated to capturing the images of a beautiful baby taken too soon from the families who loved them. I had the opportunity to interview a longtime photographer, Vicki Zoller with the program for today’s post in honor of this special day. On Thursday, we will meet a family who lost a child and had their story documented by Vicki through the NILMDTS program.
Sharon Muza: How did you become involved in NILMDTS?
Vicki Zoller: I heard about the organization through another photographer. I haven’t experienced a loss but felt the draw of this work as a photographer. Being able to capture that moment in time, that private, painful moment in time and hold it captured forever for the family was the draw for me. I have been involved in NILMDTS since 2008.
SM: What kind of photographer makes a great NILMDTS photographer?
VZ: I think that a photographer that appreciates what a gift they possess and can share in such a meaningful way is what makes a great NILMDTS photographer. Having a skill, a unique skill that allows you to come into that room and forever record this moment is something that you either ‘get’ as a photographer or you don’t. The photographers that I have worked with, trained and become friends with in this organization have a passion for this. There is chord that resonates in us that tells us, ‘how can I NOT do this’. How often in life do we really get to make this kind of difference? How often do we really get the chance to make something a bit better out of something so horrible. It’s a chance to not just stand on the sidelines and say, ‘Oh how sad’ or to feel powerless. It’s that opportunity to know that you truly are making a difference.
SM: If there is a photographer interested in joining NILMDTS, what are the first steps that they should take?
VZ: They need to go to the main website at Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep and apply to become an affiliate photographer. During the application process an applicant will be asked to submit samples of their professional level work, demonstrating use of natural and auxiliary lighting. If they want to find out more about the organization before they apply they can, at the same website, click on the ‘find a photographer’ link and find someone in their area that might be willing to answer some questions for them.
SM: Is there special training that a NILMDTS photographer receives before beginning this work.
VZ: NILMDTS photographers are given a training manual after they are accepted. Many larger areas, like here in the Greater Seattle Area, offer training on a fairly regular basis. We also have our new photographers go on a session with a more experienced photographer just to get a feel of where to go, what to say, how to handle the session, etc. But there are many of us, especially those that came into the organization early on, that never had that opportunity to ‘train’ or ‘shadow’ with a photographer. We just went when the hospital called and did what we knew how to do as photographers . . . capture beautifully lit and composed images that the family would have as keepsakes. Not really all that different than what we would try to do for a regular ‘paying’ client. We want to give our NILMDTS families the same quality as we would want to give to anyone.
SM: How do you record the beauty of these little ones when their bodies may be scarred, or changed due to illness, medical equipment, etc. Do you “celebrate” these things or do you use your skills to portray the babies in a different light?
VZ: We never change anything that the baby was born with. These are special aspects of a beautiful new baby. So things like cleft lips or special features are kept as is and are indeed celebrated as part of this child. We do retouch images. We retouch blood, mucus, tears in skin, perhaps close the eyes if needed and generally try to create a gently retouched but authentic image of the baby. We may remove tape that held in medical equipment and try to give the family an image that doesn’t have “hospital’ written all over it. We try to pose the babies in gentle and sensitive ways with the parents and without. We tend to keep it simple and clean and truthful in the emotion of the day. We photograph many details, the little feet and hands, the profile, the ears, the swirl of hair on the top of the head. We want the family to have all these details to remember with. Especially when the detail may be a family trait of some kind such as a crocked finger or toes that splay wide . . . just little special things. All our images are converted to Black and White or Sepia to provide a gentler viewing for the family.
SM: How do you not let the sadness and grief come into your life, when your work taking and processing the pictures is done?
VZ: The beauty of having a camera in front of your face is that is becomes a filter to the events and emotions in the room. That isn’t saying that we don’t feel things while we are there but when you have a job to do, a task to complete, that is where your mind tends to go and that camera is a filter. You are looking at the world through a bit of space that holds only a piece of the room at a time or a piece of the baby at a time. That makes a HUGE difference. We tend to go in to ‘photographer mode’ and that is where we stay during the session. Sometimes processing the images is the harder part. Now you have these images, large and real, on your computer screen and you are looking at them closely to see what you can do to improve them. It tends to come home emotionally for many photographers once they have the images on the computer.
SM: Can you share a very challenging moment or situation in your work with NILMDTS?
VZ: That’s a tough one but generally the hardest tend to be the full term babies with NO VISIBLE signs of WHY they passed. I’ve been at sessions where mom was fine, baby was fine, all through labor but then at delivery things went south. On one occasion, it was a full term baby boy that came out screaming and crying but once the cord was cut he passed . . . instantly everything changed. I think that for me those kinds of sessions are the toughest. To be so CLOSE to the finish line, to almost have that baby all warm and pink and crying and then to have nothing . . . When you see a baby with obvious things wrong or they came too early or the parents have had to make that terribly hard choice to end the pregnancy due to health issues you can almost accept it better. Sort of like, ‘Ah ha! That’s the reason, there it is’. It gives you something to wrap your brain around. Not as easy to do with full term losses .
SM: What would you like birth professionals to share with ALL parents about the NILMDTS program.
VZ: We are free. That is really important for them to know. I think they see our brochures and wonder how much it will cost them. We are professional. We come in, we act professional, we capture professional quality images, we respect the environment we are in and we respect our families’ privacy and their pain.
SM: Are there brochures available for placement in childbirth classes, health care provider offices, etc?
VZ: Yes, brochures are available either from our headquarters in Denver or you can get some from your local Area Coordinators or photographers.
SM: How does NILMDTS get the word out to birth professionals about the services that are offered to parents?
VZ: Our photographers and our Area Coordinators generally are the ones that get the information out there. I contacted the nursing managers at all our local hospitals when I first started. I built relationships and over time, as they saw the work we did, saw how we interacted with their patients, saw the benefits of what we can give, they began calling us more and more often. It’s a good feeling to be a part of the bereavement groups at the hospitals, to be something that the nurses can offer these families in such a horrible time. There is so little consolation that can be given but the prospect of having some beautiful and thoughtful images of your baby can be of great help in that horrible time.
SM: Who can use the services of NILMDTS?
VZ: All hospitals and birth centers. Also social workers for fetal medicine. Funeral homes as well. Any one that wants to contact us for any reason that might involve this special kind of photography is welcome to call.
SM: Do you take pictures just of babies or do you also record older children?
VZ: Generally just babies. But if asked we would, if a photographer is ok with it, offer our service for older children. Soulumination (in the Puget Sound, WA area) is another photographer organization that often provides ‘life portraits’ for families of older kids facing a grim prognosis or for children under 18 whose parents are facing a terminal illness.
SM: How are you received by the staff of the facilities you take pictures in?
VZ: At first it was a bit sketchy. Some nurses thought it was weird, grim, maybe not appropriate. But generally once they see the quality of our work and how it helps the family they become very accepting. We are now very well received at all the major hospitals in the greater Seattle Area.
SM: What do you tell parents when they are unsure if they want pictures?
VZ: Generally it isn’t us that contacts the parents about our services. The nurses or the social worker will offer the service to the parents. We only come if the parents want us to come. We don’t come just because a nurse wants the photos taken. It is only at the request of the parents. Once there, parents might be feeling ambivalent about having images done. It is so surreal isn’t it? Here you are with a baby that has passed and in comes a professional photographer to take portraits!! If they tell me they don’t want any photos with the baby I gently remind them that today is raw and painful but there will come a time when the pain has lessened and I don’t want them to have any regrets about not having at least one image of their baby’s hand in their hand. Once I mention that it is just their hands they are more receptive and then sometimes it progresses from hands to a complete family portrait. But we don’t push too hard. As long as they have some photos of their baby, then they will find some peace in that.
SM: Do you stay connected with families after you have completed your phot session?
VZ: On occasion. It isn’t something that I pursue. If it happens organically, then it’s wonderful. I have been able to see some of my families go on to have other babies, healthy, wonderful babies and I love that!!
SM: Is there anything you would like readers of Science & Sensibility to know?
VZ: If you or anyone you know has ever experienced a loss, please know that there are others out there just like you that are recovering and it’s important to not feel alone, find groups out there that have families going through loss as well. Stay connected to those that will understand what you are feeling. NILMDTS is an amazing organization that is always looking for new photographers and community volunteers. If anyone wants more information please contact me or NILMDTS headquarters.
Healthcare professionals are awesome and anyone working in the labor and delivery field knows how fragile the delivery process can be. There is always that moment when you can almost see mom and baby on that razor thin edge between life and death. Having a healthy baby is hard work and those that care for moms during pregnancy and birth are special people! We want to be a part of your bereavement kit but we hate it when you have to make that call. But when you do, please know we will be creating some meaningful images for your families and that we will do that with love and compassion.
Have you had experience with NILMDTS on a personal or professional level? Do you share this resource with your students, clients and patients so that they are aware of this wonderful organization? Are you also a photographer who captures these sweet babies? How do you help families experiencing pregnancy and infant loss? What are your favorite resources. Please share your thoughts with our readers in the comment section. And if you know a NILMDTS photographer, thank them on this day, for the heart work that they do.