The Most Emotional Photographs You May Ever Make

Many photographers get into the photography business because it is a powerful medium that has the capability to affect lives, help bring about positive change, and record important moments in history. Most professional photographers love their jobs, and feel fortunate to be getting paid to do something they love.

Tucked away in a quiet little corner of Photo Plus Expo was a tiny booth that many attendees probably missed. As Andrew Fingerman (PhotoShelter’s VP of Marketing) and I were waiting to speak to someone in a neighboring display, we found ourselves standing in front of The Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep booth. It was decorated with beautiful portraits of newborn babies and their parents.


Cheryl Haggard and her baby Maddux. Photographed by Sandy Puc’.

“Are you familiar with Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep?” the woman behind the booth said.

“No, actually, I’m not,” Andrew said.

Her answer brought Andrew to tears, and both of us were immediately emotional. It was then that we realized that the babies shown in these beautiful portraits were stillborn, and the images we were viewing were gifted to the parents as “remembrance photography.”

No other booth space in the entire exhibit hall spoke to the power of a still photograph more than this tiny little booth hiding in the corner.

The Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep Foundation (NILMDTS), a non-profit organization, administers a network of more than 7,000 volunteer photographers in the United States and 25 countries.

At a family’s request, a NILMDTS Affiliated Photographer will travel to a hospital or hospice location and conduct a sensitive and private portrait session. The portraits are then professionally retouched and presented to the families on an archival DVD or CD that can be used to print portraits of their cherished baby.

“The work we do is difficult and it takes a very special person to see the need and feel called to help families suffering a tragic infant loss,” said Jacque Lopez, Executive Director of NILMDTS.

“Our volunteers have such big hearts, and give so much of themselves. We are truly thankful for the network of people who are passionate about our mission, and who want to make sure that they are able to serve as many families as possible,” she said.

The organization got its start back in 2005, with the birth of Maddux Achilles Haggard. Born with myotubular myopathy, a condition that prevented him from breathing, swallowing or moving on his own, his parents had to make an excruciating decision – to take him off life support. But before they did, they called Littleton, Colorado photographer Sandy Puc’. She photographed Maddux alone, and with his parents, at the hospital before and after he was removed from life support.

“That night was the worst night of my life. But when I look at the images, that’s not what I’m reminded of. I’m reminded of the beauty and blessings he brought,” Cheryl Haggard (Maddux’s mom) said.

This experience inspired Cheryl Haggard and Sandy Puc’ to start NILMDTS. Five years later, the organization has provided free professional photographic portrait services to thousands of families of babies who are stillborn or are at risk of dying as newborns.

Zenia Anderson, a professional photographer based in Southern California, is one of the organization’s volunteer photographers. She runs Zenia Photography, and specializes in weddings, births, and baby & family portraits.

“I found out about NILMDTS after losing two very early pregnancies of my own,” Zenia said. “I knew after I lost those pregnancies, that I needed to give back to the community and support families who had gone through similar experiences.”

“Parents from the NILMDTS sessions that I photograph are amazing. Whenever I walk into the hospital room, I always admire the strength of the parents. They are always incredibly grateful that an organization like NILMDTS exists,” she said.

I realized right away that, although the photographs were a powerful first step in the healing process for the parents, the emotional situation the volunteer photographers would be working in could be intense.

“My advice is to make sure that volunteering for NILMDTS is something you are capable of doing both emotionally and time-wise,” Zenia said. “It’s definitely not easy being a volunteer and every time I am called in for a session, I question whether I can do it myself but I’m able to find strength somehow for these families.”

“NILMDTS is an incredible organization and being able to offer support to families experiencing loss through your photography and time is definitely very worthwhile,” she said.

Photographers interested in volunteering, or learning more about NILMDTS can visit the photographer’s area of the organization’s website.


Cheryl Haggard and her husband with their baby Maddux, just after he was removed from life support. Photographed by Sandy Puc’.

I had some questions related to the volunteering aspect of NILMDTS, and the organization arranged for me to interview Jacque Lopez, the Executive Director.

What kind of qualifications does a photographer need to have in order to participate with NILMDTS?

Our mission is to provide the gift of professional portraiture so each photographer who applies, is reviewed by a volunteer team of Senior Level Photographers. They are reviewed in the following categories:

– Proper use of Studio Lighting
– Proper use of On Camera Flash
– Proper use of Available Light
– Posing
– Attention to detail
– Expression
– Prop usage
– Creativity
– Skill level
– Experience (in years)

Applicants are scored on a scale of 1-10 in each category with 10 being the highest skill level. An applicant must score a minimum of 40 by two separate reviewers in order to be approved. When we have a high number of applicants (following trade-shows or conferences) we do let a single review approve if the score is at least 55-60. If two reviews are done and the scores are not high enough to approve, then a third reviewer will evaluate the applicant as well. It takes 3 reviews under 40, with all 3 reviewers being in agreement before an applicant is declined. We do require that an applicant have auxiliary lighting experience/skills as the sessions we do are often at night, and in poorly lit rooms so natural light may not be available.

What is the process like for a photographer? Can you describe a common experience?

The one thing we do know is that no two sessions are alike and so it is hard to describe a common experience. Our photographers have done sessions where a family is so distraught that after they go home from the hospital they cannot even remember if the photographer was male or female. They have done sessions where families were very peaceful, some have been cheerful even, and some were celebratory to honor their child’s life. All are challenging and can be difficult for our volunteer photographers.

Most of the time our photographers go into “professional mode” and just do the session like they normally would. Some times the tears come and they cry alongside a family while doing a session. Other times they process in the car on the way home, and still others don’t work through the emotions until they begin to edit the photos for the family. We have had photographers reach out for help, as they cannot finish the editing for a session because it is too emotional. At times like these, we have a team of Digital Retouch Artists who can also step in to help.

In our training we stress that our volunteers address the baby by name and interact with the family in a way that acknowledges the importance of their baby and the brief time they had.

How is the photographer notified, and are they expected to rush straight to a hospital to shoot a portrait?

Photographers are notified in several ways. Many areas have a volunteer photographer who has offered to step up and coordinate the calls from a particular hospital – these folks are called Area Coordinators. When the hospital has a family who needs our services, they will typically call the Area Coordinator and request that a photographer be located. Once the Coordinator has confirmed that a photographer is available, then the hospital will tell the family about our services and see if they would like photos. Most of the time they say yes, but some decline the services. If the family wants services then the hospitals let’s the Area Coordinator know to dispatch the photographer. In areas where there is no Coordinator, the hospital can locate a list of photographers on our website using our “Find a Photographer” search to locate by zipcode. They can call down the list of photographers until they find one who is available.

As this is a volunteer service, we do not ask that our photographers rush immediately to a hospital, but rather to let a hospital know at what time during the day they would be able to go. Many are full time photographers with busy studios, or even part-time photographers who work other full-time jobs and so they just need to let the hospital know when they are available. With that being said, there are always circumstances that may be an urgent need and very time sensitive and our Coordinators/Photographers do their best to accommodate the needs if they can.

You have photographer training. What types of things do photographers learn during the training sessions?

Our training sessions are not really photography training, but specialized training to know how to complete a Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep Session. The training is 6.5 hours long and we have a group of Certified Trainers who have been certified at the Headquarters office to provide this training around the country, in Canada, the UK and New Zealand. The training consists of the history of NILMDTS, policies and procedures, how to work with hospitals, how to work with families, how to stay emotionally healthy, how to do a photo shoot in a small hospital room that may be poorly lit, or in the NICU with lots of tubes/wires and where space is more limited. We talk about the best ways to light a session in challenging circumstances, and review standard posing ideas to help move a session along smoothly.

We also cover the post-production process and some retouching tips/ideas, as well as how to put together the standard gift we offer to families which is a CD or professionally retouched images and includes a copyright release so families can get their images printed at the print lab of their choice. Many of our photographers also provide an optional slideshow of their images set to music that has been donated to NILMDTS and is royalty free for our use.

Our regular training seminar also qualifies for 1 PPA Merit for photographers who also belong to PPA. We are in the process of developing online video training to cover these same topics as the demand for training is greater than the number of certified trainers we have available. The online training will release early in 2011 and will be a 6 part video series. The online training will not qualify for a PPA merit.

Is it common for a photographer to photograph a baby that has already passed?

Yes, we photograph babies who are born still or who pass before our photographer arrives. We also have families whose babies are removed from life support and the family prefers to have pictures free of all the tubing and wires so they look more at peace. In some cases, our photographer arrives in time to snap a few images while baby is still alive and to be present as they pass so they also can capture some images afterwards, but as I said before – each session is different.

To find out more about how to apply to become a volunteer photographer, or to make a donation please visit the Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep website.

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This article was written by

PhotoShelter co-founder and GM

There are 4 comments for this article
  1. Luis Villegas at 10:34 pm

    This is the first time I hear about the Organization an it just blew me away the incredible service they provide to families on their darkest hours. There are no words to describe how proud it makes me feel that fellow photographers can do this. I know for a fact I couldn’t for as much as I would love to, having a 2 year old myself I will find it impossible to handle the emotions of those moments, just by reading the article I became a pathetic mess. God bless the people that do this, really.

  2. TDF Photography at 2:10 pm

    I have been a volunteer photographer with Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep for nearly two years now. Although so incredibly difficult at times being that I have five children of my own; I know that the quality of imagery and experience I can provide these parents really is substancial. I have found myself in the worst places in hospitals, hearing the worst stories of heartbreak, found myself physically holding up a weak and completely heart broken mother, found myself spending 8 solid hours over night editing one image to create the best possible outcome. I am sadden by the keep sake polaroid some parents are given as a reminder of their child…I can help parents avoid this, so I do. I keep in touch with many of “my” families, some of which I have become very close too and I too wander with them through the greiving process. Some of these families have changed me for the better, have inspired me through their darkest moments to keep going to REALLY SEE everyday the amazing gifts I have been given. For me it started out knowing that I could do this to help others, to share the natural talent I have been given in a beautiful and profound way, but now I see I have too been given a gift in each inspiring family, each beautiful baby in each image that I take.

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