Courtesy of Redbook.com | By
Kathy haas, as told to Samantha Lefave | Originally Published 04.19.2017 | Posted 04.16.2019
I never thought I’d be a full-time photographer, but in 2007 I realized I had a deep passion for it. So I enrolled at the Texas School of Professional Photography, and I’ve now been working professionally for 10 years. I mostly shoot high school portraits, community events, and do aerial photography, but for the last seven years I’ve also done work as a remembrance photographer.
I first heard about remembrance photography when I was about three years into my photography career. I was at a trade show and noticed a booth from Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep, a nonprofit organization that connects remembrance photographers with parents suffering the loss of a baby for a free portrait session. I was intrigued by the concept and the way these photographers handled a very emotional situation. I immediately signed up to offer my services. I didn’t have an obvious reason for why — I’m lucky in that I have never lost a child (I have two children who are the lights of my life), and at the time I didn’t have any close friends who had been through that experience, either. But I felt, quite strongly, that this was a way I could give back to my community. I didn’t know of any photographers in my area who did this type of work, and after talking to a friend who works as a nurse at the local hospital, I realized it was a way I could hopefully help these families through their grieving process.
I still remember the first remembrance shoot that I did. It was for the family of a little boy who was born with a terminal disease. For the short time he was alive, about 8 or 9 months, he was hooked up to tubes and monitors that could never be taken off. They called me after they made the decision to take him off of life support, and as I walked up to their tiny, cracker box-like house, my heart immediately started breaking for this family. Here they were, just having made one of the most difficult decisions of their lives, and it looked like they had close to nothing to help them get by. I thought, “My God, they’re going through all of this and they probably don’t have any money to pay for those medical expenses.”
But as I photographed him in his nursery, you could feel the love pouring out of these parents. When I asked if they wanted me to take pictures of him with all the tubes out, they gently told me no, explaining that this — tubes and monitors and all — was the only version of him they had ever known. They wanted to remember him exactly as he was, not as who he could have been. That was so heartbreaking to hear, but I completely understood and respected their wishes. As I photographed their little boy, all I wanted to do was try to give them some sort of peace — something they could look back on someday and maybe, even if just for a second, feel happiness instead of devastation.
I do remembrance sessions like this at least once or twice a month, and I’m always on call with Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep and the hospitals in my area. I get calls at any time of day or night, in any kind of weather. Sometimes, though, if a baby passes away in the middle of the night, the nurse will ask me to wait and come in the morning. It gives the parents a little bit of alone time with their child, and time to notify any family members they want to include in the photoshoot. And, as awful as it sounds, it’s usually fine for me because they’re instructed to place the infant in a cooler for preservation. This isn’t an experience I want to rush, anyway.
While I have learned to distance myself emotionally while I’m working, the job itself never gets easier. I always try to keep it together while I’m with the family, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t cry every time after I wrapped up and drove home. Shooting with family members is the hardest. A few weeks ago, I photographed a baby who was born via C-section, but the parents and doctors knew that she only had a few hours to live. So they allowed me into the delivery room, which was really emotional — the baby was crying and moving, but the family knew it wouldn’t last very long. Then I went into the hospital room, where I got photos with the entire family. They baptized the baby in the room, and afterward a four-year-old boy — this baby’s older brother — went up to his mom and simply asked, “Are you OK, mom?” My heart broke immediately; when I left, I sobbed the entire way home.
Work like this reminds me how precious life and family can be, and it makes me realize how fortunate I am to have never experienced this situation first-hand. I also think it makes me a better photographer. There are a lot of us out there with different specialties, but with remembrance photography, you’re really limited in how you can conduct a photo shoot. People don’t want you barging in with lights and cameras, and you can’t move things around to provide a perfect “set-up.” So I’ve learned to work with those limitations and still capture a precious moment for these families.
Stillbirth sessions, in my opinion, are one of the most difficult things to photograph. The pictures themselves aren’t always pretty. I remind parents of that before I turn over any imagery; I want them to be prepared. There isn’t any pinkness in the baby’s cheeks, oftentimes their lips are turning black, and their skin becomes more translucent and very fragile. But I think it’s still an important moment to capture, and beauty really is in the eye of the beholder. If these pictures help them through the healing process, then it’s all worth it for me.
It’s really hard to describe what you’re feeling in a remembrance or a stillbirth session, and while it can’t be categorized as anything but difficult and emotionally draining, it’s work that I’m not ever going to shy away from. And sometimes it really does help families move on. I’ve had families contact me again when their rainbow baby is born — that’s what they call a child born after one passes — and tell me that not only do they cherish the first session, but they’d like me to photograph this next one. That means the world to me, and when I’m really lucky, friendships forge out of what was once nothing but darkness. Knowing that I was a part of something that helped bring them a little bit of light is nothing short of a blessing.