Snapshots of a much-too-brief life

Evan Salter comforts his father, Ken, as the family comes to the decision to release Jacob, in the foreground, from machinery.
Evan Salter comforts his father, Ken, as the family comes to the decision to release Jacob, in the foreground, from machinery.
By Kay Campbell
Saturday, October 23, 2010

For his daughter's entire lifetime, Joey Karr smiled into her eyes.

Then the infant, who was born with a fatal form of dwarfism, died in her mother's arms as her three siblings patted her.

Photographer Kelly Clark Baugher caught that lifetime of love in photos, images that are now sacred with the weight of life and loss that the death of a baby brings.

Baugher is one of a small but devoted number of professional photographers who volunteer at hospitals to take pictures of heartbreakingly short-lived joy. A Colorado-based group, Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep, sends professional photographers, if the families request them, to quietly record a child's brief life.

The organization has more than 7,000 volunteer photographers across the United States, including in the Washington region, and two dozen countries.

"It's one of the most wonderful things I've ever done," Baugher said as she looked through photos from the more than 60 families she and photographer Mary Ellen Pollard have served. "It's almost as though time slows down in that room. I will never forget the feeling: I felt God in that room."

She is referring to the hospital rooms where parents sit with an infant that was stillborn or has been disconnected from life support when death has become the kindest option. The photographers stay at the periphery, quietly working without a flash as they record the fleeting moments.

The idea is macabre only for people who haven't lived through it, say Ken and Amy Salter, who became the parents of twin boys born last fall, one of whom died after months in neonatal intensive care.

They wouldn't have considered having the infant's final minutes photographed but agreed when nurses suggested they call Baugher.

"The photographs are a lasting comfort," said Amy Salter, who now volunteers as a parent coordinator for Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep. "Yes, it was difficult, but to have pictures, to remember the little smile he makes, his little fuzzy head - it's priceless."

The photographers make a picture CD after they edit the photos, giving parents finished pictures with the calm sheen of magazine shots. Parents can choose to print them or look at them - or not. Many find themselves returning to them often for a quiet space of remembering and weeping, Salter said.

Nurses who have assisted families going through such a wrenching time have seen how the photos become, later, a source of comfort as people thread the long valley of grief.

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