A good friend of mine, who is a nurse, told me that the Arbus picture of Anderson Cooper as a very young baby really disturbed her. For her it called to mind the Polaroid snapshots nurses often take for parents whose babies have died in childbirth or shortly thereafter.
There has, of course, been a long tradition of photographing people/babies who have died. This daguerreotype of a mother and her deceased child, for example, was made in the 1850’s. The practice has fallen in and out of favor over time and definitely varies with different cultures/traditions. I found this article recently written by journalist Maura McDermott, who writes for The Star-Ledger in Newark, N.J.
“Not long ago, families of stillborn or terminally ill newborns were urged to ‘move on’ and squelch their grief, says Gerald Koocher, a pediatric psychologist who spent 30 years working at Children's Hospital Boston and counseled many grieving families.
A gradual change began in the 1960s and 1970s, perhaps due to the influence of the women's movement and mothers feeling more comfortable insisting that their grief should not be tucked away, he says.
Now, it's more commonly accepted that families must grieve for infants as much as for any loved one, he says. Reminders, such as photos, also might help siblings take part in the family's mourning instead of feeling isolated.”
About a year ago, I began volunteering for an national organization that provides, free of charge, the services of portrait photographers for families who have lost an infant. Shortly after I signed on, I began to get phone calls - usually in the middle if the night - from nurses in area hospitals saying there had been a death and could I come over right away to make portraits?
It was heart-wrenching work, needless to say.
I realized pretty quickly that I wasn’t cut out for it. Unfortunately, each time I was called, the deceased was only twenty-some-odd weeks along. This was difficult, to say the least. I also finally ran into one nurse who suggested and “set up” some arguably questionable/distasteful shots, and the vulnerable, grieving parents had no choice but to go along with her plan. It made me feel extremely uncomfortable, even though the young and completely devastated couple was grateful beyond words for the pictures I later gave them.
Again, from McDermott’s’ article:
‘Mainly, it's been about finding a proper and effective way to grieve,’ Gary Laderman, a professor of religious history at Emory University says, ‘and some kind of reminder of appearance is a very potent means of grieving and mourning and being able to live with death.’