A gift few can give
Lake Oswego woman takes remembrance photos of babies who died at birth
Jamie Forsythe meets parents on perhaps the worst day of their lives and gives them a gift that no one else can photos of the babies they just lost.
The Lake Oswego photographer is a volunteer and coordinator for the national nonprofit Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep. The program provides free remembrance photos to parents who suffered the loss of a baby.
Forsythe, who has been a professional photographer for 12 years, first heard of the program in 2007 while at a conference. At the time, the mother of two thought, I dont know if I could do that, even though her previous career in the corporate world put her working in hospitals for 16 years.
I had been around doctors, nurses and hospitals, but I didnt know if I could deal with that because grief was involved, she said.
Then, Forsythe experienced her own grief. In 2009, while scuba diving with family, Forsythes brothers equipment failed and he died.
It was tough. It was really tough, she said. After that I started to understand grief, that you do live through it.
One thing that helped her work through the grieving process was looking at photos of her brother.
We cherished all those pictures so much of my brother, she said.
A year later, she took a leap of faith and signed up to volunteer for Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep.
The program works in different ways depending on the situation. The majority of the calls Forsythe receives are from area hospitals alerting her of parents loss or pending loss and desire for photographs. As a coordinator, Forsythe will allocate one of her volunteer photographers and he or she will go to the hospital and take photos of the baby or the baby and the family. Forsythe still makes two to three calls a month because there are not enough volunteers.
I pack up my gear and head to the hospital. I first offer the family my condolences on their loss or impending loss, and then I get to work, knowing that the images I capture will be their only connection to that child once they have said goodbye, Forsythe said.
After the digital photos are taken, they are touched up, turned black and white, and put on a CD for the family to keep and remember their child. They also receive a DVD with a slideshow of the photos set to music.
For Natalee Duffy and her husband, Jesse, those discs are irreplaceable. On May 25, 2012, their son, Sawyer, was stillborn at one week overdue.
In the moment, when you are realizing that is all you are going to get, obviously it means the world, Duffy said of the photographs.
The Duffys, who live in Happy Valley, were allowed to stay in the hospital their full 36 hours, and they spent that time with Sawyer, soaking up every detail they could.
You are trying to memorize all those features, she said.
At the time, the Duffys had four other children (they have since welcomed a baby girl into their family). While Forsythe was there, the siblings came into the room to see their baby brother. Forsythe was snapping pictures the entire time.
We didnt even notice the photographer. She captured moments I remember in my heart, Duffy said. As she explained to the children that Sawyers heart had stopped beating, Forsythe was there too.
She was there hearing all of it and capturing those images. To see a picture of that moment means the world to us, Duffy said. Its just amazing what she did.
Before Forsythe could set out on her own taking bereavement photos, she shadowed another volunteer.
I thought that I would be emotional, that I would cry, that I would be overwhelmed, Forsythe said. But, while watching her mentor work quietly and quickly, she realized she just needed to be there.
You have to make a connection with the parents. If you dont, you cant shoot, she said.
Sometimes parents just want photos of the baby. And sometimes parents are reluctant to touch or hold the baby; however, Forsythe finds those are the most treasured moments and photos.
Forsythe has done 40 sessions herself now, but each time is different. For her, the best cases are when parents know ahead of time they are going to lose their child. Then Forsythe can plan and get to know them the days prior to the birth. Some babies pass away at birth, some are on life support. The worst cases are the full-term deaths.
For me, those are the saddest, she said. And they are all heartbreaking, every single one of them.
Taking the remembrance photos takes a gentle touch, as handling and positioning the baby can be tricky. But Forsythe finds the job gratifying.
Its never convenient when we get the call ... but I always just feel good that I was able to do something to help them, Forsythe said. The raw emotions are there. Its the most beautiful work Ive ever done and Im a better photographer because of it.
Though Forsythe keeps her emotions in check while taking photos, sometimes she finds herself crying while editing them.
Its deep. Its very, very deep, she said. I take a photograph and tell their story. This is all just part of life. ... Its powerful stuff.
For the Duffys, those photos and those moments will be held precious forever. They are starting a program, Sawyers Light, that will provide headstones for families who have gone through a similar loss.
You have a baby and instead of bringing them home, you plan this service and are buying a casket, said Duffy, who aspires to become a photographer and volunteer like Forsythe. I wish more people would get involved.
Currently, Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep serves 12 hospitals in the Portland metro area, including Legacy Meridian Park and Providence Willamette Falls.
However, there are only 15 photographers on the volunteer list. Of those, only about five to seven take calls in the Portland area.
Forsythe said there is a strong need for more volunteer photographers.
The older I get, the more it means to me. If (photographers) can do this kind of work, its a gift very few can give.
To learn more about or to donate to Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep, visit http://nowilaymedowntosleep.org. Jamie Forsythe Photography (soon to be Red Sofa Studios) is located at 17642 SW 63rd Ave., Lake Oswego.