If you were to ask Kelly Haas why she felt such a strong pull to become a remembrance photographer, she'd tell you there was no obvious reason. Sure, she was living her passion as a photographer of high school portraits, community events and aerial coverage, but why specifically shoot photos of parents with their stillborn or soon-to-pass babies?
After discovering Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep, a non-profit that connects photographers to parents suffering the loss of a baby for a free photo shoot, Haas told Redbook that she was "intrigued by the concept and the way these photographers handled a very emotional situation." Although she or anyone she knew had never lost a child before, she felt very strongly that being a remembrance photographer could be her way to give back to the community and help families through their grieving process.
Haas still remembers her first remembrance shoot seven years ago. After eight or nine months, the parents of a baby with a terminal illness decided to take him off the tubes and monitors he had been hooked up to his entire life and could never take off. She recalls feeling sorrow for the family as she walked up to their home, but quickly understood there was another emotion at play, too.
"But as I photographed him in his nursery, you could feel the love pouring out of these parents," Haas says. "When I asked if they wanted me to take pictures of him with all the tubes out, they gently told me no, explaining that this — tubes and monitors and all — was the only version of him they had ever known. They wanted to remember him exactly as he was, not as who he could have been. That was so heartbreaking to hear, but I completely understood and respected their wishes. As I photographed their little boy, all I wanted to do was try to give them some sort of peace — something they could look back on someday and maybe, even if just for a second, feel happiness instead of devastation."
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Haas says that she's always on call with Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep and the hospitals in her area. She does one or two remembrance shoots a month, and says she receives calls at any time of the day or night, in any weather. In some cases, if a baby passes in the middle of the night, the calling nurse will ask Haas to wait until morning.
"It gives the parents a little bit of alone time with their child, and time to notify any family members they want to include in the photo shoot," Haas says. "And, as awful as it sounds, it's usually fine for me because they're instructed to place the infant in a cooler for preservation. This isn't an experience I want to rush, anyway."
Even though Haas has been doing remembrance photography for seven years, she says the shoots never get any easier. "I always try to keep it together while I'm with the family, but I'd be lying if I said I didn't cry every time after I wrapped up and drove home," she says.
During one experience, the baby had been delivered via C-section and the parents and doctors knew she didn't have much time — so Haas was allowed into the delivery room.
"The baby was crying and moving, but the family knew it wouldn't last very long. Then I went into the hospital room, where I got photos with the entire family. They baptized the baby in the room, and afterward a 4-year-old boy — this baby's older brother — went up to his mom and simply asked, 'Are you OK, mom?' My heart broke immediately; when I left, I sobbed the entire way home."
Although her work is challenging and emotional, Haas says she feels blessed to be able to help parents through the worst time of their lives. "If these pictures help them through the healing process, then it's all worth it for me," she says.
"And sometimes it really does help families move on," Haas says. "I've had families contact me again when their rainbow baby is born — that's what they call a child born after one passes — and tell me that not only do they cherish the first session, but they'd like me to photograph this next one. That means the world to me, and when I'm really lucky, friendships forge out of what was once nothing but darkness. Knowing that I was a part of something that helped bring them a little bit of light is nothing short of a blessing."
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