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Remembrance Photography's Role in Grieving

Story by
Nancy Joseph

Six days before her due date, a pregnant Seattle woman learned during a routine doctor’s appointment that her baby no longer had a heartbeat. She had lost her son to a virus that can be deadly to fetuses.

The mother decided to deliver him naturally, rather than via caesarean section. Then she faced another decision: Would she like a professional photographer to capture the few moments she would have with her stillborn son? 

Remembrance photographers use a documentary style to capture  timeless images.

Remembrance photographers use a documentary style to capture  timeless images. Media credit: Soulumination

A photo shoot with a dead baby may sound morbid, especially in a culture that tends to be uncomfortable with death. But remembrance photography provides grieving parents with lasting memories of their children who lived so briefly that little else exists to remember them by. UW anthropology major Faustine Dufka explored the role of remembrance photography in an undergraduate honor thesis titled “The Memory You are Left With.”

Dufka became interested in the topic after taking an anthropology course on the comparative study of death from James Green, professor emeritus of anthropology. Her research is based on 18 months of volunteer work with the Seattle-based organization Soulumination, which provides free photographic services to families with children under 18 facing life-threatening illnesses, as well as interviews with parents, photographers, and health care workers.

“The photos validate the experience of the parents, and prove the baby existed when oftentimes there are so few memories and things to show,” says Dufka. “They are still a parent, even if their baby has died, and the photographs help to confirm that parental identity. And to validate that their baby’s life, no matter how brief, was a life.” 

Daniel Hoffman, associate professor of anthropology and Dufka’s faculty adviser, describes Dufka’s research as “medical anthropology at its best.” He says, “She used careful observation to explore a real problem: How people experience and make sense of a personal tragedy within a larger social and medical context that doesn’t generally honor or assist them in grief.”

One Seattle mother whose baby was photographed by another nonprofit, Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep, told Dufka that she was surprised by the beauty of the photos. She didn’t think it was possible for them to turn out so well since they were taken in a hospital. For the mother, “the photos were something to look forward to after leaving the hospital empty-handed,” Dufka said. The mother also kept a few objects her son had touched, such as a blanket he was wrapped in immediately after his birth. 

Other parents recalled similar attachments to the photos. Their babies lived from 10 minutes to 7 months after birth, dying from lethal genetic variations, trauma during birth, and other reasons. In some cases their photos portray the few moments they had as a family, with the newborn surrounded by loved ones, including parents, siblings, and grandparents. The parents display the photos at home and used them at memorial services.

“It’s easier to talk about something if you have a photo to share,” Dufka says. Photos “are a gateway to bringing up memories of the deceased. For siblings who weren’t there or were too young to remember, photos can help parents talk about and explain what happened.” 

Faustine Dufka, wearing a Soulumination T-shirt, spent 18 months  volunteering with Soulumination, an organization that provides free  photographic services to families with children under 18 facing  life-threatening illnesses.

Faustine Dufka, wearing a Soulumination T-shirt, spent 18 months 
volunteering with Soulumination, an organization that provides free 
photographic services to families with children under 18 facing 
life-threatening illnesses.

Photos the parents took themselves on phones or personal cameras depicted the reality almost too vividly, the parents told Dufka. “We do have pictures of when he died that [my husband] took…before the hospice nurse came,” one mother told Dufka. “I can’t look at those…. He’s blue, you know, he’s lifeless and he’s blue.”

Remembrance photographers use black-and-white and sepia tones to disguise how sick the babies can look. They use certain angles or—usually at the parents’ request—airbrush out hospital equipment. For babies who have died, photographers use poses to make it look like the baby is simply sleeping.

Mourning and post-mortem photography used to have a more visible presence in American culture, Dufka points out in her thesis. In the 1800s, it was socially acceptable to display photos of deceased individuals, including images of the body posed to look asleep on a sofa or a close-up portrait. Professional post-mortem photography went out of fashion in the 20th century, possibly because medical advances encouraged prolonging life and denying death. Public pain and mourning became taboo, according to research Dufka references in her thesis, and families moved toward taking their own photos of deceased loved ones and keeping the images private.

Could this be changing now that technology makes taking and sharing photos so easy, and that photography has become one way to legitimize an experience and create a memory? The resurgence of photography in the context of loss, Dufka believes, could signal a change in the way death and dying are talked about and dealt with in our society.

“I think it’s really happening, I think there’s a real change,” Lynette Johnson, founder of Soulumination, told Dufka. “People are not stepping back from loss like they used to.”

It’s possible, though, that Dufka’s interviews don’t reflect all parents’ responses to remembrance photos. Since she interviewed parents who were willing to speak about their experiences, her sample of parents could sway more toward those who have experienced benefits of the photos and who have reached a stage of grieving where they can talk about their child’s death.

“Every individual moves through their process of grieving very differently,” Dufka says. “The main purpose of this research is not to prove whether or not remembrance photography is actually beneficial to all parents, but rather to understand the different ways in which these types of photographs are used by bereaved parents in the process of mourning.”

Dufka says that walking through that pain with parents who have lost a baby has helped her understand grief from their point of view. She plans to go to medical school, and believes her project will help her talk about death with her patients and their families.