What most caught my attention, however, was how he uses his time and talent to help others. Dale is a volunteer for Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep (NILMDTS), a nonprofit foundation that offers, free of charge, the services of an local professional photographer to parents who are suffering the loss of their baby. Upon the family’s request, the photographer comes to the hospital or hospice to conduct a private portrait session to artistically document and tenderly celebrate the brief life of that child. (See http://www.nowilaymedowntosleep.org/.)
For many years, Dale had thought about doing volunteer work, but he wasn’t finding a satisfying place to plug in. Then he heard about NILMDTS from another photographer who worked with the foundation. He didn’t jump on the idea right away, but when she mentioned it again months later, he was ready.
When a newborn has just died or is not expected to live very long, medical personnel may suggest the foundation’s services to the parents. Dale joined in 2006 and has been called out to shoot six bereavement photography sessions so far. He is never obligated to go on a call – he is just one of several affiliated photographers that the foundation’s area coordinator can contact. Those on the call list have been specifically trained by the foundation so that they may appropriately meet the needs of the grieving family.
“It’s not the kind of thing that everyone can do, and it’s not the kind of thing that a lot of people will even understand,” he said. “But for me, it comes from the heart.”
When Dale arrives for a photo session, he usually gets a short briefing by the nurse on duty, who then introduces him to the family members. Dale asks for any special requests, such as certain family shots or using a certain prop or toy in a photo. He also takes some documentary shots, such as when the nurse weighs the baby or takes footprints, or when a chaplain administers a blessing or last rites.
“It’s not just providing portraits – it’s the telling of a story, too,” Dale said. “We feel that the mom and the family will want to remember all of this. And often they don’t remember the details.”
“I had one session where the baby was diagnosed with trisomy 13. I was in the room for the birth, and there was one very brief moment when the baby started to cry... It was the only moment that that baby showed any signs of life. Other than that, he was just quiet and still, and he lived only a couple of hours. But it was shortly after he was born, when mom was holding him, that he started to cry....”
Dale captured that moment. When this mother saw that picture a few weeks later, he said she took a deep breath and gasped, “I don’t remember this....” So he described to her as much as he could, filling in her blank spots.
“Maybe the memory will come back and help her heal,” he said. “[If so,] it’s going to be a really good memory.”
By documenting the fleeting moments of a baby’s time on Earth, NILMDTS photographers help the family heal by honoring that life in a tangible way. They give the family the opportunity to share these professionally-rendered heirloom portraits with their family and friends – proof that yes, this baby did exist and was well loved.
“When I start to take pictures, it’s like going to work,” Dale said. “Generally, I do really well, and my focus is on the technical and creative aspects of what I want to do. But often the emotion in the room is overwhelming. I get teary-eyed. On my drive home, I’m recapping everything and I put a lot of details to memory that I’ll need to know to put the pictures together and do a slideshow.”
Dale has kept in touch with about half of the families that he has met through this volunteer work.
“It feels good to have done something for someone that is really important to them,” he said. “There is satisfaction in people appreciating what you do.”
Dale’s other creative endeavors include outdoor and nature photography. He and his wife Cindy have three sons: Dale, 25, Jeffrey, 21, and Adam, 17. You can learn more about him by visiting his website at www.dalekincaid.com.