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  • Writer's pictureJessica

Volunteering as a Bereavement Photographer: Annie’s Journey and Call to Action

Updated: May 3

Content Warning: this article mentions infant loss and miscarriage

Images provided for this article are courtesy of Annie Chen, with permission from the families photographed.

Annie Chen and I went to high school together. Over the years, we’ve stayed in touch over social media and I’ve had the pleasure of seeing her work as a photographer. Annie specializes in family photography, drawing from her own experiences documenting her very cute kids.

I recently saw on Annie’s Instagram that she volunteers as a Bereavement Photographer at BC Women’s Hospital & Health Centre, supporting moms and families experiencing child loss by documenting moments that are full of suffering and beauty. I must say that it was my first time learning about this type of volunteer role. When I think of hospital volunteering, I think of Wayfinding Support, Patient Activities, and Friendly Visiting. Annie’s photos touched me and I’m so thankful that she was willing to be interviewed about her journey and experiences in this volunteer role.

Thank you, Annie!

JPP: How did you learn about the Bereavement Photographer volunteer role and what inspired you to get involved?

AC: I first learned about this type of bereavement photography through a photographer group on Facebook. There is an organization called Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep (NILMDTS), which connects families with local volunteer photographers. This organization engages volunteer photographers from across North America and around the world.

I thought this was such an important service that volunteers provide and was immediately intrigued. NILMDTS engages both photographers and digital retouch artists as volunteers. On top of a screening process, NILMDTS requires a volunteer application fee* and completion of a training course. They also have a strict set of rules for photo editing.

Ultimately, I decided I wanted more flexibility and would like to work directly with hospitals, so I did not apply to be a volunteer through NILMDTS. Instead, I did my own research and training to prepare for this volunteer role.

I scoured the internet for bereavement photographer tips, learned how to photograph grief, and read accounts of what to expect with stillbirth photography. Once I felt I was ready to photograph families, I emailed and reached out to several hospitals’ volunteering inboxes about volunteering my bereavement photography services.

JPP: I bet they were thankful to hear from you!

AC: When I sent those emails, I was excited about this meaningful way to use my photography skills. Unfortunately, it was crickets! I never heard back from most of the hospitals.

JPP: That must have been disappointing. Every potential volunteer deserves an excellent customer service experience. As I said recently in my guest blog for Volunteer Toronto, organizations should “respond to all volunteer inquiries and track potential supporters”, because it is the right thing to do and increases potential donations too!

But I digress, I’m assuming that BC Women’s Hospital & Health Centre reached out?

AC: Yes, two weeks after my emails went out, a social worker at that hospital emailed me about a family who had lost their baby. That was my first time in the volunteer role and I’ve gained a lot of experience since then.

JPP: Tell me about that experience. What is a “typical” bereavement shoot like?

AC: Most of the time these pregnancy and infant losses are unexpected. The hospital social workers and on-call nurses will call me once a family has delivered the baby and requests remembrance photography. If I am available, I usually arrive at the hospital within an hour of the call.

Some families are very emotional because the loss was unexpected and sudden. Some families have a few weeks to process and are expecting the loss, but are still utterly heartbroken.

The whole process takes approximately thirty to ninety minutes. I am usually the only one in the room with the family, but the social workers and nurses supporting the family are available as needed.

JPP: That must be very difficult. As a photographer, what do you focus on during that time?

AC: Everyone grieves differently, so I try to be respectful and gentle with my process. I take photos of the baby, the toes, the fingers, any details that parents may want to capture. Then I take photos of the family together. My main focus is to capture images that families can look back on fondly with love, and maybe a little less heartache.

Honestly, I photograph bereaved families the exact same way I photograph a newborn photo session. I ask parents to hold their baby, gently touch those little fingers, and be present in the moment. The photos I take are just a physical reminder of the time they spent together. I hope when they look back at these photos, they will recall those special moments they shared.

JPP: You are truly filling a need for these families- thank you. Can you share how this volunteer role has impacted you personally?

AC: Before I started bereavement photography, I did not know how frequently these losses occur. I believe the statistic is one in four pregnancies will result in a miscarriage or loss. Many of these families grieve in silence because losing a baby is a taboo subject.

I wanted to share these stories of grief and normalize conversations about infant loss. It is happening to so many women around us, so, I felt obligated to raise awareness and offer support for those grieving their babies. I am truly humbled by the strength of these families and they have my sincerest respect.

JPP: Since you are doing this volunteer work independently, without an organization like NILMDTS, how has the hospital supported you in your role, especially during the COVID pandemic?

AC: The hospital has been very supportive of my contributions and enabled me to volunteer safely and independently on their premises. I provide my own consent paperwork for the families to sign, for things like permission to share, complimentary service, permission to edit the images, confidentiality, etc.

The social workers at the hospital are very kind and have offered to chat if I ever need support.

COVID protocols are in place at the hospital and the staff ensure that I follow these protocols, which includes completing a COVID screening every time I volunteer.

Hospital parking fees have been suspended across BC due to COVID. I have requested a parking pass once free parking is no longer in effect and appreciate that type of volunteer benefit.

JPP: What advice would you give to other photographers considering this volunteer role?

AC: This is a great way to give back to our community and there is a shortage of photographer volunteers. If other photographers are considering volunteering their talent, I encourage them to reach out to me directly. I will offer my experiences and answer any questions to help prepare them for the role.

JPP: Thank you Annie for building a grassroots movement of volunteer bereavement photographers. I hope our conversation inspires more photographers to volunteer, and more leaders of volunteers in hospitals to engage this role.

Shortly after my conversation with Annie, we connected via Instagram direct messages. Annie said, “The hospital just called me. I can’t make it tonight but hope they can find someone. I’m so frustrated because I know there are times that I am unable to shoot at a moment’s notice, so more photographers need to volunteer.”

*NILMDTS offers scholarships to volunteer candidates who experience barriers to paying the $10 USD application fee. Application fees go towards supporting NILMDTS’ operations, technology costs, and volunteer benefits including a “nondenominational Chaplain for emotional support” and liability coverage. Please visit NILMDTS’ FAQ page for more information.

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