Photography started out as a simple hobby. You didn’t exactly plan on taking photographs of any dead children. 

            People always think that they want to do what they love as their job, but something is lost in the process. You used to love writing, working out ideas, hands to the keyboard, blank pages- all that. But after writing professionally for seven years, something gets forgotten. Your first love was fiction, so the special interest stories you write for local newspapers are an undershot. But at this point, it all bleeds together for you. And why should it be different? Words. They’re just words, after all. 

You didn’t know anything about photography, but that was the point. You took some art history in college, but the ideas of framing up shots, negative space- you didn’t understand what the hell they meant. But that was great. There wasn’t a deadline or the pressure of being good at it. Or, even worse, the helplessness of standing on the cusp of something, the pain of falling short.

            You went to Best Buy, bought the nicest digital camera they had in stock, all the accessories, the extended warranty, blew two heavily researched articles’ worth of pay on the damn thing. On the way out, you tossed the receipt in the garbage as a reminder to yourself.

            The early pictures were bad, not that you knew the difference, it all looked the same to you. But it wasn’t that your eye couldn’t learn to see, but you could never get over how easy it was to take a picture. Just press a button, and you have a potential piece of art. You knew this was simplifying, perhaps being condescending to people who take photographs. But for you, writing a story, shooting a film, painting a picture- these all took time, enough time to stop, to realize your missteps, to fix a poor trajectory. With the photos, it was too fast for you. Much too fast.

            The first child that you photographed was Elaine’s son, your nephew. They’d already named him Jacob, your late father’s name. At the time you felt like it was a waste to use a family name on a child born without the ability to survive away from a machine, but you hated yourself immediately after.

            “It’ll be like he never existed,” Elaine said, holding the child, smaller than a regular newborn, but otherwise no different than any other babies in the hospital. Even the tubes coming out of Jacob, the only thing keeping the thin distinction between life and death at bay, could be discounted by the unknowing eye as normal procedure, devices to be removed in a few days, umbilical cords yet uncut. 

            You offered your services as sort of macabre gift for the child. You were surprised at how enthusiastically your sister and her husband agreed to this, how much they wanted a reminder of nature’s mistake.

You didn’t know how it would work. Did they want to pose with the child? Would they dress up? When you ran home to fetch your camera, you grabbed the baby clothes you had bought. When you returned, your sister was doing her best to fit into a blouse, tears of frustration burning her eyes.

You ended up using the clothes you’d brought. You thought how morbid it was fitting the child’s arms through the sleeves of the tiny shirt before realizing that was you were doing was no different than any living child. Just as helpless.

You ended up taking 50-some photos in two different poses. The first was of your sister and husband holding the baby, still technically alive, in their arms, the life-giving tubes still attached. The second was after they had removed the tubes, the baby now lifeless, yet unattached. You remember thinking afterward- going through the photos, picking out the best ones, touching them up on Photoshop- how Jacob seemed more alive in the ones without the tubes, how your sister smile was more relaxed, how they seemed happier, more relieved even. You only made prints of the ones after Jacob had been taken off of life-support.

“That was a good thing you did,” a nurse told you as you left, off to feed Elaine’s dog, write an article about a local girl who just won a national beauty contest. “A lot of parents have no way of remembering these babies. It seems morbid to you, but the pictures really help.”

You gave her your card, this being the card that says “Freelance Journalism,” not “Dead Child Photographer.”

“I might be willing to it for others, if this is something that people are interested in,” you said.

The first call came a month later. Born 10 weeks early, a little girl this time. The mother didn’t have any clothes to put on the child, and there was no father around. Just the mother, the breathless creature in her arms, the only person to ever love it.

Later, you received a call from a father. He told you that the mother was inconsolable, didn’t want anything to with the babies, but he was hoping you’d come anyway, do it for him. When you arrived, you asked if he wanted to be in the picture, holding the child.

“No,” he said, his voice hollow. “I’m not even sure I’d be able to if I wanted.”

You found not one, but two stillborn children lying on their backs, both just over the size of a fist, their bodies covered in dark, bruise-like blotches, eyes closed in a way that made it seem like they didn’t have eyes at all. It wasn’t until you were retouching the photographs later that you realized that the twins’ fingers were intertwined, like they were holding hands. The damned comforting the damned.

Before leaving, you found the nurse who you had given your card to.

“I don’t think I can take these pictures anymore,” you said, trying to come up with an excuse. You were moving away, you didn’t have time, something. But she understood, shook her head like she was gracefully receiving bad news that she had been expecting.

“Thank you for doing it as long as you did,” she said. You almost expected her to shake your hand, but she did no such thing. Just turned away, went back to work, at home in this world.

Later, Christmas Eve at your sister’s.  You’d mostly given up the photography. Not a concrete decision, just something that you’d let slip away from you, instead. She had a kid now, a girl this time, healthy. You didn’t take pictures at the hospital when she was born. Real photographers could take them. There would be time for that later, you thought. All the time in the world.

When Elaine went to put the baby to bed, you looked at the framed pictures on the wall. Some were of your sister and her husband when they were younger, a few wedding pictures, but the wall was mostly covered with family photos with the baby. Matching outfits, themes, white curtains as a backdrop.

“We never put up any of Jacob,” said your brother-in-law, Devin, catching you off guard.

“I wasn’t…” you began, but he knew. He walked up to you, a drink in his hand, non-alcoholic, and put his hand on your shoulders, like a doctor breaking bad news.

“They’re in the basement in a box. Sorry. We’re still grateful for what you did. We don’t… we can’t look at them all the time, though. But it’s comforting to know that they’re there. That they exist.” 

“You gentlemen ready for drinks now?” your sister said, coming down the steps.

“Is she asleep already?” Devin said, his voice playful, different. He kissed Elaine, and they began to leave the room, but you kept staring at the pictures.

“You okay?” Elaine asked.

You picked up one of the pictures off of the wall, turned it toward Elaine. “Do you happen to have any pictures of the three of you that I can have? I don’t have single one of the baby.”

“Of course,” Elaine said, gesturing for Devin to start the drinks. She walked up to you, grabbed the photo out of your hand. “The photographer actually gave us a CD of the shoot. We could make you a print of this particular one if you wanted.”

You smiled, thanked her. Later, you drank weak drinks, laughed empty laughs, let them make most of the conversation. And while they talked, you thought how stupid you were for thinking that pictures these days couldn't be duplicated infinitely, that each was unique, something special. Because they're images. They're just images after all.

Alex Sobel is a freelance journalist living in Toledo Ohio. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in publications such as Ink, Sweat, and Tears; Two Words For; Dogzplot; and The Stray Branch.

After I had the idea for the story, I did some research on the idea of taking pictures of stillborn children. It's a more common practice than you'd think, and there are even groups that provide the service for families seeking pictures, free of charge. What struck me was how difficult of a decision it must be for families to decide to have photographs taken, and then what exactly becomes of the pictures afterward. Remembering seemed painful. Forgetting seemed painful, as well. To me, there was something in that struggle that I could connect to my own questions about the purpose of art and writing, which I find myself questioning constantly, without any conclusions. Out of these thoughts came 'Words/Pictures/Reality.




Copyright 2009