COMPASSIONATE ACCEPTANCE: MEDIA RESPONSE TO NEO-NATAL REMEMBRANCE PHOTOGRAPHY

Photo of mother and child from Capturing the Briefest of Lives. [1]

The media response to neonatal remembrance photography reinforces the idea that there is a growing acceptance of a more public presence of death, and especially infant death. Almost all press I encountered showed a compassionate understanding of the importance of remembrance photography for the grieving parent, and an almost reverential recognition of the important and emotional service these volunteer photographers provide.

 

Articles in the LA Times, the Chicago Tribune, the New York Times, CNN, Newsweek and the Today Show [2] describe the hospital-room photography process and the subsequent portraits as moving, respectful, affirming, compassionate, and deeply cherished. The LA Times describes neo-natal remembrance photographs as “portraits, in black and white…soft and luminous, elegiac. The infants look as though they are sleeping.” [3]

Despite including the disclaimer and explanation below, CNN goes on to say that the photos are “not a portrait of a dead child, but rather this incredible unfolding story of love and loss." [4]

Disclaimer slide. Infant Loss Awareness Day: Bereavement Photos. [5]

Most of the articles I read interview both parents and photographers, both parties extoling the importance of this experience in their lives. All the stories are touching, and many include extensive slideshows and examples of neo-natal photography. One parent tells the Chicago Tribune that initially “’I was really kind of grossed out by the thought of it,’ Van Tassel said. She can't count how many times she has given thanks that she changed her mind. ‘They're gorgeous,’ she said through tears. ‘They're all over my home. Framed. She's my baby. It's sad and horrendous that she died, but I think the greater tragedy is not having anything to hang onto. … His photos really honor her life.’” [6]

The public acceptance and media attention paid to neonatal remembrance photography speaks to a change in what Philippe Aries describes as “the prohibition of mourning and the right to weep for one’s dead.” [7] No longer, it seems, are we “supposed to act as if nothing had happened so that everyone else could act the same way, and social life could continue without being interrupted, even for a single moment, by death.” [8]

 

By comparison, and somewhat surprisingly for the usual rhetoric on the internet, the comments in most of these articles are respectful. Readers weigh in about their own stillbirths or problematic births, support fellow parents in their grief, and laud photographers for volunteering this much-needed service. Commentors praise these volunteers for doing what is inherently emotionally difficult work, and seem genuinely touched by both the photos and the intent behind them. A common theme is "I couldn't do this but I'm glad someone does." [9] There are few negative comments, and the negative ones tend less to discuss the photos themselves, but more what the commentors see as the "commercialization" of these photos. One commentor says "It's valuable for certain. But now it's a blog post. Looking for hits. You should have kept it to yourselves if it mattered to you. Now it's just sick advertising. I hope you got a lot of exposure." [10] The issues that readers seem to have are not with the existence of post-mortem photography as a practice, but with the potential exploitation they perceive of these families grief process and the public nature of a blog post featuring what some consider immensely private documentation.

 

By publicly sharing their experience and their treasured family photographs, these parents are normalizing the experience of infant death and encouraging open and healing conversations about loss and memorializing a dead child. The fact that so many major news outlets are reporting on neo-natal remembrance photography and the organizations that provide this service normalizes death even further, and encourages conversations both online and offline about how we as Americans deal with death.

Photo of sisters from Capturing the Briefest of Lives. [11]

Family photo from Capturing the Briefest of Lives. [12]

[1] Fleck, Alyssa. Capturing the Briefest of Lives. Narrative.ly. September 27, 2013. Accessed on July 26, 2015. <http://narrative.ly/stories/capturing-the-briefest-of-lives/>

 

[2] NILMDTS on the Today Show. May 23, 2015. Accessed August 2, 2015. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=viN4MxbU6tE>

 

[3] Simon, Stephanie. Capturing final, precious moments. Los Angeles Times. November 21, 2007. Accessed on July 16, 2015. <http://www.latimes.com/news/la-na-photog21nov21-story.html#page=1>

 

[4] LeTrent, Sarah. Infant Loss Awareness Day: Bereavement Photos. CNN.com. October 16, 2014. Accessed on July 16, 2015. <http://www.cnn.com/2014/10/15/living/bereavement-photography-infant-loss-awareness/>

 

[5] Ibid.

 

[6] Brotman, Barbara. Bereavement photographer offers grieving parents a pricless gift. Chicago Tribune. April 11, 2010. Accessed July 16, 2015. <http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2010-04-11/news/ct-news-bereavement-photographer-20100411_1_priceless-gift-baby-shop-life-support>

 

[7] Philippe Aries, “The Reversal of Death: Changes in Attitudes Toward Death in Western Societies,” Death in America, ed. David Stannard, 1975. Page 152.

 

[8] Ibid. Page 150.

 

[9] Lumsdaine, Fiona. Using Photography to Make a Heartfelt Difference. Digital Photography School. Accesed on August 8, 2015. <http://digital-photography-school.com/using-photography-to-make-a-heartfelt-difference/>

 

[10] Ibid.

 

[11] Fleck, Alyssa. Capturing the Briefest of Lives. Narrative.ly. September 27, 2013. Accessed on July 26, 2015. <http://narrative.ly/stories/capturing-the-briefest-of-lives/>

 

[12] Ibid.