We lost our son, Joshua, to Trisomy 18 in May of 2019. When we arrived at our 14 week checkup, they couldn’t find a heartbeat. A sonogram confirmed that our sweet little boy had flown to heaven, probably around 12 ½ weeks. He was born at home later that night. We were heartbroken to lose him, yet grateful he did not suffer longer with Trisomy 18.
All of the advice we read online said to photograph him. We didn’t want to. When he was first born, it was painful to look at him. It was a stark reminder of what we weren’t going to have and, out of the water, he didn’t look very natural. But the knowledge that there would never be another opportunity to photograph him was enough to goad us into trying. We planned to put the pictures on a USB drive and didn’t think we would ever look at them again.
We had no idea that such stunning beauty could come from the devastating experience of a late miscarriage. The experience of photographing our miscarried son brought healing to us, and has now touched others too. We didn’t realize we could capture images like these of our son until we did it. While it is common to photograph babies who were stillborn, it seems very few know that beautiful photography is possible with much smaller babies. So many people have already told us “I wish I had known,” that we have decided to share our story so that other parents can have photographs of their children to treasure. We are not professional photographers, so if we can do it, you can too.
As a team, my husband and I have taken artistic photos of all of our living children. So we decided that we would do our best to give Joshua’s photos a touch of artistry. We weren’t expecting much, but the pictures turned out so incredibly beautiful, we had trouble stopping. We experimented and learned as we went. We were watching beauty rise from the ashes, right before our eyes. Still, we didn’t truly grasp just what we had captured until the next day when we looked at them on a computer.
The intricate details of our son are amazing. You can see his footprint, which would have been impossible with ink because his bones had not yet formed. You can see his fingernails and even the joints starting to form in his hands. We placed him in and on flowers, as well as other objects that were special to us and he looks so beautiful and natural. It is easy to imagine how he looked tucked inside of my body. You can view our best images here: https://youtu.be/fzKE_C-SYfw
We do intend to release a more in depth how-to tutorial video on the channel above. However, for those that need it now, here are some basic instructions:
- After the baby is born, use a saline solution to give yourself time to heal and get in a frame of mind to take photos. The saline solution is easy to make (though I had to read through chemistry forums to find the instructions, many of which are in grams). Boil water for 10 minutes (or use distilled water). Then mix the saline solution using 1 cup of water to ½ a teaspoon of salt. Too much or too little salt will give poor results and may cause the body to change shape. Let it cool before placing the baby in the solution. You can also make the solution up ahead of time if you know you are having a miscarriage (this is what we did). Place the solution and the baby in a jar (plastic or glass) with a tight lid. Place the jar in the refrigerator. We used a smaller refrigerator in an out of the way place (mostly used to store soft drinks) rather than placing him in the main refrigerator. Change the water every 2-3 days until you make permanent arrangements. We took 8-days to get everything in place for his service and burial. During this time, we could tell very little difference in his appearance.
- Use a neutral background. All we did was tape a large white blanket to the wall using tape. Any good tape that will hold up fabric will do. Then, we safety-pinned a large piece of off white tulle (that I meant to use for a project and never did) to the blanket. We used a clear glass cake stand to set the bowl on. Then we put LED candles under and around the cake-stand. The cake-stand was placed on top of the white blanket, but underneath the tulle. The tulle was also over the candles, which is why it was important to use LED candles. In this way, the supporting objects were made to disappear or be reduced in drawing your attention to them, but they added to the overall composition.
- Set the stage. Pick a bowl that is pretty to use for the baby and saline solution. We used a decorative cracked glass bowl from our wedding that added to the effect but any good clear glass bowl should do. Use flowers from your yard, or that you have bought, to position under or around the baby. We used many flowers from Joshua’s grandparent’s flower beds as well as some cut flower arrangements that were sent to us as condolences. Use objects that have sentimental value to you. We used items from our wedding as well as items from our other children’s baby things. Take your time to get things set.
- Water is your friend. Take the majority of the photos with the baby in the water. Miscarried babies are physiologically built to exist in water at that gestational age. They look much more natural under the water than they do out of the water. We happened to run across this tip at heavensgain.org and it made a HUGE difference. We placed the baby on flowers, caladium leaves, etc., and submerged them in the same saline solution discussed above. We had to push them under the water in some cases and tap them with small screwdrivers to get the air bubbles off of them. Also, we gave him a bath in regular water before we started to rinse away the remaining blood. Rinse away as much of the blood as you can in order to make the photos look better and to avoid staining any fabrics used.
- Use good lighting. We picked a room that had overhead lighting and lamps as our photography area. We used all of the lighting in the room and a regular LED flashlight with an adjustable beam and High/Low settings in addition to an Ultraviolet light. Make sure that the white light is used more than the UV or colors. You should have enough light to help the camera to get a good focus with the basic room area lights. Use the LED flashlight to illuminate the area of interest. Experiment with the area you highlight with the flashlights by adjusting how much of the setting is lit, how bright the light is, and the area of the setting you are putting the light on.
- Use an Ultraviolet flashlight as a supplemental source. The ultraviolet light made the details on the baby and the flowers stand out in a way that regular lighting did not. My husband happens to keep an ultraviolet flashlight around to look for water stains. I have no idea why he thought to use it on Joshua’s photos (and he just shrugs whenever I ask him), but it made an amazing difference. If you don’t have one, they can be bought for less than $10 at places such as Amazon, Walmart, and Lowe’s. Using the saline solution method above can give you a few days to pick up items like this flashlight that will make a big difference. With the availability of color LED lighting there are many other possibilities for adding color to your photo shoot. Just be careful of how much light is used on the child. The goal in general is tasteful accenting not garish colors. We used the UV with discretion on how much was on Joshua vs the surroundings.
- Make the details stand out. Use a Macro setting on your camera if possible. If not, get as close as you physically can to take up close photos of hands, feet, ears, etc. Concentrate on focus first, composition (what is in the photo) second. If the shot is not focused the cropping and filtering won’t matter. With your editing software, you can adjust the composition (to some degree) later. Also, adjusting the exposure time in the editing software (such as Photoshop, Lightroom, or even Photoshop express) really helps the tiny but precious details stand out.
- Be careful handling your child. Your child is fragile - especially in the early stages – so take your time and move gently as you hold and move and position him or her. Don’t be in a rush to finish as often the more time you spend doing the photos, the more creative ideas will flow. If there is broken skin or other defects, get detail photos for later but use the settings to help hide them for your more artistic photos. We used our hands, an ultra-small screwdriver, fingernails, the blunt end of a sewing needle, or whatever we had at hand to be able to position Joshua for the photo layout we had in mind.
- Don’t be afraid to cry, stop, start over, get your family members involved, and sleep on it. Time can get away from you and grief can overwhelm you during this process. LET IT. Do this type of photography when you have time to not be rushed, and time to share this journey with your spouse, your children and anyone you want to get involved. If the tears come, and they probably will, just pause and put aside the photo process and allow yourself the space to grieve. If necessary take another day; another evening; another location; to continue and complete your photo taking process. Editing can come later. Get all of the pictures you can think of and then move on to the other steps in the grieving process, whether that is a service, a burial, or whatever you have chosen to do with the body.
Miscarriage is a heartbreaking experience, and I ache for all of us who are forced to travel this path. But it was so healing for us to spend time with our son in this way. We were able to say both “hello” and “good-bye” while making photographs we will treasure for the rest of our lives. I hope this knowledge helps some of you see beauty rise from the ashes in your own journey.
May God bless you and grant you peace and comfort.
*Note: This article was written for parents, not professional photographers.