‘I photograph the babies that didn’t make it’.

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Photo by Gavin Blue from Heartfelt

Gemma works for a volunteer organisation of professional photographers from all over Australia called Heartfelt, who give the gift of photographic memories to families that have experienced stillbirths, premature and ill infants and children in the Neonatal Intensive Care Units of their local hospitals, as well as children with serious and terminal illnesses. Here’s her story.

I think it was the hair that got me. Days later it is still the hair that I’m thinking about. Little waves of it, slicked to her scalp by the way she had entered the world. Dried and curly with the remnants of birth. And her tiny lips, puckered ready for kissing. But this babe hadn’t entered peacefully, and the way her head lay, her tiny feet, her hands and her chest pinpricked with the texture of the towel that covered her, was testament to the lack of breath in her lungs.

Her mouth, that sweet kissable mouth, was dark and seemed to frown somehow. It was like she was sad she knew she’d almost made it from that deep dark place in her Mums belly to that safe milky spot on her chest. Still she lay there, a lovely chubby girl, and I took what I could of her for a memento. I took her face, her hands crossed over her little heart, her feet, everything I could get into my camera for safe keeping, and then I walked out into the relentless summer sunshine, to a world that moved on, paying no heed to the loss of her small breaths, and a parking ticket.

It was then, photographing the second dead child in less than an hour, that the midwife had turned to me and said “This part is the hardest part. I hate it”. And I knew she meant what I was feeling, that those little lifeless bodies, were more than their size. So many hopes and dreams, even expectations, were tucked up into their teeny hearts, under their miniature fingernails, in the wave of those birth formed curls, that they should have been 1000 feet tall not so terribly, terribly, eternally small.

In that same breath she’d asked me why I did it? Why?

I’d gotten up that morning, to a house full of family sleeping off the excesses of Christmas, and nabbed my niece off a sister thankful for the chance of some extra sleep. I’d had too many champagnes the day before to try for my own lie in, and greedily wanted P’s nine-month-old morning smiles to myself before the family rose and started the slightly competitive game of baby pass-the-parcel (each vying to be the apple of her delightful eyes).

We’d cuddled on the couch, and I’d nestled my nose into the soft folds of her darling little neck, absorbing her. I was born, and then much later so was she, into a family that loves babies. We’re not many, us lot, but we are treasured. Dad was stoked to be a father and welcomed us with home baked bread, and a spot on his chest that I still, thirty something years later, tuck myself into. Mum adored us completely, lavishing us with love, and delighting in our every moment. Then later, when we became a blended family, and I had two more sisters, and another Mum, we were chucked into this big melting pot of love-each-other (with a dash of exasperated just-get-along-you-lot) and told we could be anything we wanted.

We weren’t planned kids, nor the children of people who had tried for long, tiresome and tear filled years to conceive. We were just a raggedy bunch of ratbags, four stroppy girls, who grew up loved. And now the next generation has come along, perfect and kissable and delicious (yes, even at 5am). We’re also a family that throws the kids around, each of us rolling up our sleeves and mucking in with the tantrums, the nappies, the baths, the reading of books, the feeding and the entertaining. Each of us measuring ourselves in children, all adding slightly differently. For me; two nephews and a niece, who have changed my life in the most magnificent and unexpected ways.

I’ve lain with them, just to watch them breathe as they sleep, and my arms have been solace for their hurt. I’ve snuck them healthy chocolate crackles for breakfast (to steal from Roald Dahl “A stodgy parent is no fun at all. What a child wants and deserves is a parent who is SPARKY”), and I’ve told them off for drawing on the wall. My eldest nephew gets a delighted look on his face when I tell him I was the first person to see his face (he laughs too when I tell him he was a cranky squawk of thing who yelled his displeasure on arrival). I might not have grown any of them in my belly, and I may never grow any of them in my belly, but they are my babies too. And that’s the answer to her question.

I walked into the morgue the day after Christmas to give something to that mother whose dreams had ended when her tiny girl had died after 22 weeks inside her because of my babies. Because I’ve learned the value of each of their little breaths. And it was confronting photographing this perfect babe, who was impossibly small. Teeny tiny everything, teeny tiny everything except for how much she was loved. And a photograph is no tradeoff for the life her parents had started to colour in for her, nor for the anticipation of who she was going to become, but it’s all I have to give.

The midwife stood next to me, cooing at the tiny girl, who had come into the world before she had even had a name, about how precious she was, and how much she was loved. And although her small body was without any flicker of life, it seemed like the right thing to do. To talk to her as we photographed her. She paused too, and asked me if I was okay? It was a yes-and-no answer. Yes. I was. Because this moment was good, hard but good, and though it was just the three of us in that pastel walled viewing room, with its bland furniture and soothing palette, we were doing some more substantial than our surrounding suggested. And no, I wasn’t. Because I could see the pictures I was taking in the hands of someone who should have been holding her baby instead.

After I grabbed the parking ticket from under my wiper I drove to my sisters house. P squeaked her funny baby hello and spider-crawled across the room to my feet. I swept her up for a sniff of her sweaty summer skin, and kissed her round cheeks. Her hair waved along her scalp, stuck there by the heat. I felt the saddest then, holding one wavy haired girl and thinking of another, for those mums and dads, and for those aunties, grandmothers and grandfathers, for the siblings, and for all the people who loved those little babies, but wouldn’t get to squeeze laughter out of their tummies, or tell them stories, or hold their soft bodies close, feeling the rise and fall of their sleepy chests.

I carry my babies with me, a catalogue of our moments together in my heart, ready for recall at the slightest provocation (beware indeed a proud aunty launching into yet another tale of funny cuteness). But these babies too, are in my heart. I can’t name them, and they are not mine to grieve for, but they are there. Heart. Felt. So let this be a catalogue for you, of my moments with them, which were privileged and precious, no matter how fleeting.

Gemma did not take the following Heartfelt images but they are representative of the amazing work that she does:

Gemma-Rose Turnbull is an award winning photographer, who has just released her first book Red Light Dark Room; Sex, lives & stereotypes which was the result of a collaborative project with a group of street sex workers in St Kilda.

This was originally published on her blog which you can find here.

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