Nonprofit provides baby photos for NICU families
Despite the old adage, some pictures may actually be worth more than a thousand words.
Consider, for example, the tender photograph of Chrissy Traversari and her newborn son, Braylen, snapped four months ago in the neonatal intensive care unit at Brenner Children’s Hospital in Winston-Salem.
Despite its unusual setting — the cold, sterile environs of a NICU — the photo manages to capture a sweet moment between mother and child. In the perfectly framed image, the young High Point mother — with her tiny son cradled in the crook of her arm — closes her eyes as she leans in to plant a gentle kiss on the boy’s cheek; Braylen, meanwhile, sleeps blissfully through the moment, a serene study in peace.
There’s more. Amid the obvious love — the compelling humanity — in the photo, a thin, plastic tube snakes around Traversari’s arm and into Braylen’s nostril, issuing a stark reminder of where the photograph was taken. It’s a feeding tube — a common sight in the NICU, where tiny, sometimes premature babies often need assistance getting their sustenance. A swath of adhesive gauze secures the tube firmly against Braylen’s cherubic cheek.
At once, this moving portrait of mother and child — lovingly snapped by professional photographer Elizabeth Laughter of Winston-Salem — captures the power of love, the fragility of human life, and the hopes that arise when those two realities cross paths in a neonatal intensive care unit. The feeding tube seems jarring at first glance — a harsh prop in an otherwise tender photo — and yet it documents a key part of Braylen’s life journey.
And therein lies the mission of Capturing Hopes Photography, the Triad-based,
nonprofit organization that took the photo. Capturing Hopes provides free photography sessions — and the resulting portraits, also free — for families that have a baby in the NICU.
“That was such a hard time we were going through,” Traversari recalls, explaining how Braylen had to spend the first month of his life in the NICU following delicate surgery for an intestinal problem he was born with. “So for Capturing Hopes to come in and do what they did for us, for free, was really uplifting. It was so amazing.”
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Capturing Hopes is the brainchild of Deneen Bryan, a professional photographer in Clemmons who knows the difficulty of having a hospitalized baby.
Sixteen years ago, Bryan’s infant daughter Christina underwent a liver transplant; she died when she was only 6 months old. During Christina’s hospitalization, Bryan and her husband stayed at a Ronald McDonald House — which provides free or low-cost housing to families of hospitalized children — so when the Bryans moved to the Triad area about five years ago, Deneen began volunteering at the Ronald McDonald House in Winston-Salem.
“I started taking pictures for families that were staying there,” she recalls.
“The majority of those families had babies in the NICU, and photographing those babies really became my passion. Some of the babies weigh about a pound when they’re born, and their parents have no good pictures of them — maybe a cell phone picture, maybe pictures taken with a disposable camera the nurses give them, but nothing that gives their children any beauty or humanity.”
Bryan’s beautiful portraits of the babies, which she provided to the families at no cost, became such a hit that she had a waiting list. Families that had babies in the NICU, but who were not staying at the Ronald McDonald House, also wanted photos, but she only had clearance to work with families at the Ronald McDonald House. To take pictures for the other families, she learned, she would have to create her own nonprofit organization — and thus was born Capturing Hopes Photography.
The organization officially launched in January, and its dozen or so volunteer photographers — all of whom are professionals and own their own business — currently work with the NICUs at Brenner Children’s Hospital and Forsyth Medical Center, both in Winston-Salem.
“But if any NICU family contacts us from anywhere else, we will find them a photographer,” Bryan says.
Capturing Hopes provides NICU families a 15-minute photo session with their babies every two weeks for as long as the child is in the NICU. That can mean multiple photo sessions for some families, whose babies must remain in the NICU for months at a time.
A week or two after the shoot, the photographer will email 10 photos to the parents, who can use the photos however they like with no strings attached.
“The parents absolutely love it,” Bryan says. “As little as some of the babies are, the parents can’t even hold them — they have to wait until they grow. So when they know a photo session is coming up, they get so excited. It gives them something to look forward to, because they can look at the pictures and see how much their baby has grown in two weeks. It gives them hope.”
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The photo sessions themselves can be challenging for the photographers, both technically and emotionally. From a technical standpoint, the physical confines of the NICU can pose difficult shooting conditions.
“When the baby can’t be taken out of the Isolette (incubator), that makes it harder,” says volunteer photographer Christina Evans, a former High Pointer now living in Colfax. “There’s not a ton of light in there, and you can get distortion from the Plexiglas. It’s definitely more difficult than shooting in your studio. It’s also hard to get much variety when the baby is lying in one position, but we do the best we can. That’s why they use only professional photographers.”
Even the pros, though — some of whom have children of their own — sometimes have to struggle with the emotional challenge of photographing babies whose health seems so fragile.
“It definitely can be emotional at times,” says Evans, a mother of two. “Every time after I do a session, I call my husband and tell him, ‘We’re so blessed.’ It’s a reminder that there are so many people who have a more difficult journey than I do.”
The challenge is to remain professional throughout the 15-minute session, despite those emotions tugging at your heart, Evans says.
“You never want the family to see you upset,” she says. “You hold it together while you’re shooting, and then you go get in the car and have a good cry.”
Capturing Hopes will also photograph NICU babies that have died, as well as those that have “graduated” from the NICU and gone home. It’s all about documenting the child’s journey, wherever that journey may lead. That’s why photos such as the one of little Braylen Traversari includes his feeding tube.
“We call it lifestyles photography,” Bryan explains. “We don’t do a lot of posing or use a lot of props. We might have the parents hold the baby or give them a kiss, but it’s more about the journey and what the baby’s doing right then. The baby might have 25 cords coming out of him, but that’s part of the journey.”
For parents such as Chrissy Traversari, that’s important.
“We were afraid we wouldn’t be able to have any professional portraits from when Braylen was born, but Capturing Hopes provided that service for us,” she says. “They gave us exactly what we had hoped for.”
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For more information about Capturing Hopes Photography — as well as a large gallery of photos — visit the nonprofit’s Facebook page at www.facebook.com/CapturingHopesPhotography.