Some of Jim Kronmiller’s toughest photo shoots are not in his portrait studio or on location.
They take place in a hospital where grieving parents ask him to photograph a baby who so briefly was part of their lives.
In those rawest of moments, he captures the images of what may be the only tangible memories they will have of their child who cannot go home.
“It’s something so precious and private, and it’s such a huge honor to be there,” he told Our Sunday Visitor.
Borne of heartbreak
Kronmiller, of Franklin in northwestern Pennsylvania, is one of 7,000 volunteers with Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep Foundation, a network of photographers worldwide who are on call to provide what he said is “the highest calling for a photographer.”
Remembrance photography is also a ministry that enriches his Catholic faith, Kronmiller said, and his belief in the sanctity of life.
“It struck such a chord when I came across the organization’s website that I knew I had to become involved,” he said.
Years ago, Kronmiller and his wife, Jessica, lost their second child, James Francis, at 26 weeks. So he understands the grief.
It was that same kind of loss that led Cheryl Haggard, of Littleton, Colo., to found the organization after losing her son, Maddux, who was born in 2005 with a condition that prevented him from breathing, swallowing or moving on his own.
As the couple struggled with the agonizing decision of removing the life support, Haggard saw strikingly beautiful baby portraits in the hospital hallway.
“I want that photographer,” she said, and made a frantic call to the studio.
Sandy Puc’ had never done anything like that before, but she came to the hospital to take tender black-and-white images of the Haggards cradling Maddux while he was on life support, and then photos of them when he was removed from the tubes and wires that had sustained him.
Haggard later called it “the worse night of my life.”
That’s not what she recalls, though, when looking at those photos. “I’m reminded of the beauty and the blessings that he brought,” she said.
Honoring child’s legacy
It was such a moving experience for both Haggard and Puc’ that they founded the non-profit organization to provide parents with a free gift of professional portraiture to honor their child’s legacy. It also helps the parents with the healing process.
“I think our views as a society have changed on how we deal with this tragedy,” public relations coordinator Tiffany Storrs said. “In the past, people didn’t talk much about their loss and almost tried to pretend like the baby didn’t exist. There’s been a revolution in the last decade of people expressing their sorrow and their grief and wanting to announce to the world that ‘this child, my child, did exist, no matter how short their lives were, and my love is unbroken and undying.’ They want to tell that story.”
The organization grew more quickly than the founders expected. Word spread through professional circles and photographers all over the United States and 25 other countries now volunteer.
“They go through a strict qualifications process and receive a lot of counseling and coaching along the way,” Storrs said. “We don’t have to train them on how to take images, because they are professionals. But it is important to train them on the emotions and sensitivities of the sessions. This is not something that anybody could do. It takes a lot of heart, a lot of compassion and a lot of inner strength. It’s fundamental that we give support back to our photographers, who see firsthand the grief and the heartache.”
The photographers use stuffed animals and teddy bears for props, and babies can be swaddled in tiny clothes or blankets, or sometimes no garments at all. They are photographed with their parents, too, and grandparents and siblings can be included.
Kronmiller calls them “baby angels.”
“They look like they are sleeping,” he said.
Drawing on faith
Kronmiller coordinates a group of volunteers in his region. Tina Delauter, of Ebensburg in south-central Pennsylvania, coordinates in her area.
“I had a neonatal loss myself in 1994, a son named Kyle who was born at 32 weeks and survived for two days,” she said. “One of the nurses took some photos of him and gave me a little album that I cherish dearly.”
She was not a photographer at the time. When she became one, she said, “it all made sense” to join Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep.
Delauter draws strength from her Catholic faith when she struggles with the emotions of a session.
“But I am there to do my job, to give them cherished memories,” she said. “It’s very difficult when a baby passes, and these photographs make it real when you come home from the hospital and don’t have your baby with you, and no one wants to talk about it. You feel like no one thinks your baby is real.”
Ginger Hites, of Crafton, Pa., coordinates in the Pittsburgh area. She joined the foundation in honor of a friend who lost two sons.
“She has only eight pictures of the total six days of their first son’s life,” she said. “There are days when she says, ‘I can’t remember the color of his hair.’ These are the little things we can preserve, something that they will always have. For me, it’s just beautiful and moving to do this.”
Hites, who is in the RCIA program, faced a crisis herself when her son was in the neonatal intensive care unit after his birth 20 months ago. “It was scary with all the medical equipment and doctors, and we were suddenly thrust into a whole different world,” she said. “It’s really hard not knowing if your baby is going to survive the night. That brings your life to a quick realization of what’s really important.”
Claire Guthrie, of Aurora, Colo., thought she was doing fine a year and a half ago after her first remembrance photo session with a baby boy born at 32 weeks.
“When I went to church a couple days later, it hit me what I had experienced, and I really struggled,” she said. “I spent a lot of time in prayer and talking to friends, and I realized that we live in a broken world, and it was one of those things that happen.”
Guthrie recently took a break from the assignments and instead does fundraising for the foundation.
“Taking the photos changed me profoundly,” she said. “Now every time I see a woman who is pregnant, I pray for her. There’s no safe time. Knowing that changed the way I look at the world and deepened my relationship with God tremendously.”
Mike Demyan, a photographer and graphic artist in Bethlehem, Pa., first touched up photos for other volunteers, then moved into photography and producing CDs of portrait collections.
“When a baby is brought into the world, it becomes part of the family, even though it died in a short time,” he said. “The parents can hang onto the photos for the rest of their lives. If they have other children, they have something to show them and tell them, that this was your brother or sister.”
In one session, the baby on life support opened his eyes and looked at his father. That image is a precious keepsake for his parents.
Those things strengthen Demyan’s Catholic faith. “God gives you talent, not for you, but for someone else,” he said.
Maryann Gogniat Eidemiller writes from Pennsylvania.
On The Web (sidebar)
For more information on the Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep Foundation, visit www.nowilaymedowntosleep.org.