Photographer Specializes in Infant Bereavement A Spokane, Wash., photographer is commited to helping the parents of deceased newborn and stillborn infants. In doing so, he is acknowledging a form of hidden grief that's more common than we think.

Photographer Specializes in Infant Bereavement

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ALEX COHEN, host:

Photographers are usually hired to record a happy occasion - a wedding, a new baby, a party, something we plan for. But occasionally, when something sad and unexpected has happened, one photographer in Spokane, Washington gets the call.

Elisabeth Wynne Johnson of the Northwest News Network has this profile.

ELISABETH WYNNE JOHNSON: Heather Evans is on-call 24/7. She never knows when she'll be summoned to a bedside at Sacred Heart Hospital. She's not a doctor.

Ms. HEATHER EVANS (Photographer): What I do is I go in and I provide photography services to families who are either in the process of losing a child or have lost a baby - an infant through stillbirth.

JOHNSON: Evans volunteers to take pictures of dead and dying babies. It's a job that requires equal parts compassion and nerves of steel.

Ms. EVANS: A lot of times the families are in shock, sometimes denial, but definitely grieving. And so I go in, and usually I'm very quiet in how I speak and just approach it as if I was taking pictures of a brand new, live newborn, picture of hands and feet and little noses and eyes and ears and lips.

JOHNSON: The desire to get these pictures might seem obvious to some and unthinkable to others. Few hospitals even offer parents the opportunity, much less encourage it. The program in Spokane came along just in time for the parents of the baby girl named Eden. Eden Frye(ph) was born with a chromosomal abnormality that doctors refer to as incompatible with life. Evans first took photos while Eden was still hooked up to a ventilator, then again after all the tape and tubes were removed.

Ms. EVANS: Photographing a dead baby is - it can be very gruesome. It's not something that has to be gruesome at all. It's something that can be very, very beautiful, and something that they can look at later on and say, oh, that's right he had my nose, or she had his ears.

JOHNSON: Eden's mother, Tricia Frye(ph), is glad she has the photos for the same reason she likes having photos of her other kids, to recall them as they were.

Ms. TRICIA FRYE: In a way this puts her up there with the rest of our family, which is who she is - she always will be a part of our family, and having pictures of her is a way to remember that.

JOHNSON: It also reflects a cultural shift taking place in the medical community. That's how Scared Heart labor and delivery nurse Heather Roberts sees it. She coordinates this photography service. Looking back, she says, the advent of the modern hospital birth brought with it the tendency to whisk away the occasional losses.

Ms. HEATHER ROBERTS (Nurse): We took over that process for the family. We stepped in and said we needed to protect them from those feelings. And in the end we weren't doing any favors; we were actually neglecting to address those grief issues.

JOHNSON: The offer of photography is one way to swing the pendulum back.

Ms. ROBERTS: Mothers are increasingly saying I need this. I need to have this child recognized.

JOHNSON: An organization called Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep keeps a nationwide all volunteer registry of photographers by state. The number is still small but it's growing every month. Photographer Heather Evans says most people would be surprised to learn how many families lose babies.

Ms. EVANS: I was floored. When I first started doing this, I didn't think to ask how many times the hospital would call me in a month. I was thinking more along the lines of in a year, and the reality is it's several times a month.

JOHNSON: For each one, Evans puts together a book of images. Eden Frye's is titled with her name and the dates, March 3rd to March 13th, 2007. Her mother Tricia opens it to one of her favorite shots.

Ms. FRYE: It's this one here. Brian's(ph) cradling her head and then my hand on her belly. She's looking at the camera raising her little finger.

JOHNSON: For NPR News, I'm Elisabeth Wynne Johnson in Spokane, Washington.

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