A testimonial on the Heartfelt photography website warms and grips the heart in equal measures.“When our baby was stillborn, I feared I would in time forget her. I wanted to hang on to every moment and absorb every detail of her soft skin, beautiful face, 10 perfect fingers, 10 perfect toes, her huge feet and hands and how tall and gorgeous she was,” the words read. Since 2007 a small group of Australian photographers have volunteered their time to photograph stillborn babies and children living with terminal illnesses. Michelle Dobson and Leighsa Cox are two of the latest recruits.
Michelle Dobson needs little time to recall the most traumatic day of her photographic career thus far.
On the day in mention, Michelle photographed a stillborn baby in the morning and by mid-afternoon had also captured the last days of a dying toddler.
“He passed away two days after the shoot, he died of cancer, and that one was the worst for me . . . it was hard to stay composed for that one,” she said. “He was in pain and seeing that from a little boy, it was tough.”
Michelle, along with business partner Leighsa Cox, are Heartfelt photographers. This means they volunteer their skills and talents to giving the gift of photographic memories to families who have experienced stillbirths, premature births or are living with children suffering from terminal and serious illnesses.
And while both Michelle and Leighsa are relatively new to the Australia-wide organisation, the affect the work has had on their lives is profound.
“The president of Heartfelt (Gavin Blue) was in Newcastle doing a workshop and he did a presentation on the project and we were in tears,” Michelle, 31, of Bolwarra, said. “In the beginning I wasn’t sure if I would be able to do it, being a mother myself, but after talking to some of the other photographers Leighsa and I decided to go ahead and be part of it.”
Heartfelt (formerly known as the Australian Community of Child Photographers) began as the brain child of Siobhan Cowell, a Brisbane-based photographer who once worked as a nurse in a Neonatal Intensive Care Unit.
The service has grown from a small group of photographers to a nationwide organisation helping families on a daily basis.
“Stillbirths are the reason I got into this because I knew someone who lost a baby and she never got any photos and it was always in the back of my head that I could have helped her, but didn’t,” Leighsa, 32, of East Maitland said. “And now that I have done it, well it’s scary and emotional. It’s also very awkward because you don’t know these people at all except that their baby has passed away.
“But they want to know that that child is important and had a significant part in their lives. It’s definitely something I would want if I lost a child. I’d want that and I would want to have those memories.
“And that’s why I am a photographer anyway, I want to preserve those memories for people. So this is one little thing extra I can do for people.”
Since joining Heartfelt, Michelle has been to five photo shoots and each one has left a lasting impression on her soul. But how could it not?
“I was at a session once with a baby who was 18 months old and she was expected to pass away at the session,” Michelle said.
“She was taken off the breathing machines and I was supposed to be there for her last moments. And it hit
me that I was documenting the last moments of this little girls’ life. But the baby did not die, she is still alive now. She doesn’t have a long life expectancy but she’s fighting along.
“I guess being part of this makes me grateful and also makes me question why things happen to some people and I get healthy babies.”
For Leighsa, being part of Heartfelt has made her realise just how precious life is.
“It’s forced me to understand how fleeting it all is and how not everybody gets the happy ending,” Leighsa said. “People question why we do this, because it is confronting and you see things you don’t want to see. But visual memories are so important, our brain doesn’t hang onto everything and sometimes having that visual, physical memory makes you never forget.”
❏ For more information about Heartfelt or to contact a photographer visit www.heartfelt.org.au or call 1800 583 768.