Sixteen years ago, Deneen Bryan, her husband and their then 2-year-old son sat for a family photo with the new addition to their family, a baby girl.
It wasn’t in a professional studio with fuzzy looking backdrops or at a local park with fall foliage. Instead, it was at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota.
Bryan’s daughter, Christina, had a liver transplant — in which Deneen was the donor — at 4 months old. She needed surgery again two months later.
Bryan didn’t think too much at the time about the professional photographer who was offering to take images free of charge for families in the hospital, but now she does.
“After she passed away, we got the photos in the mail,” Bryan said. “That’s when I really realized how important those photos were. That was our only professional photo that we had of our family at the time.”
After their daughter died in 1998, the Bryans moved to Ireland for 10 year, but in 2008 came back to the U.S. and settled in North Carolina. Bryan said she was thrilled she learned there was a Ronald McDonald House, an organization that helped her family when they needed it a decade before, in their area.
Recently becoming a professional photographer herself, Bryan volunteered to take photos with Ronald McDonald families and their children who were being treated at local hospitals. Their visits on Fridays became so popular, families were placed on waiting lists, but Bryan noticed an under served segment of patients: preemies.
Most of the families with preemies were not staying at the the Ronald McDonald House, but Bryan felt they needed photographs too, so last year she started Capturing Hopes.
“They didn’t have anyone coming in. The baby was only one to two pounds and mom and dad didn’t have any photos except cellphone shots,” Bryan said, noting that the dimmer lighting in neonatal intensive care units is not conducive for the best point-and-shoot photography.
Take little Walker Pruett who was born on April 25, 2014, weighing just 1 pound 3 ounces.
Walker is the first baby Capturing Hopes created a time-lapsed video of for its “Project 100 Days,” which aims to show the progress of such a preemie in the first 100 days of its life at the hospital.
Walker’s video actually only goes through his first 80 days because he was discharged early.
Watch his transformation:
Bryan said she and her volunteer photographers, which snowballed from six to 26 within a year and a half of the nonprofit’s operation, know how to manipulate NICU lighting in a way to get good shots. She noted how seriously parents of these tiny patients take their photo sessions.
“The parents were dressed up, makeup and hair done,” she said. “It was giving the families something to look forward to every two weeks.”
Bryan said she knows her photographers are professionally trained but photographing preemies comes with an added duty: compassion.
“They’re prepared for anything. A baby could code right there while you’re there. … [You] have to be professional but compassionate. They need you to be together,” Bryan said.
“I have had a couple of volunteers where you could see a tear and they just kind of turned to wipe it away. It really affects volunteers the first time they’re in,” she said.
But Bryan said she trains the photographers to focus on the positive.
“You have to say things like ‘Wow, he’s got really long fingers. I bet he’s going to play basketball someday. Or ‘Look at that hair; she’s going to have beautiful hair,’” Bryan said.
Even still, photographers have to be prepared for the worst.
“If something happens, very slowly back out and let the medical people handle it and check back 20 minutes later and see how family is doing. The last thing anyone needs you to do is panic.”
Even for Project 100 Days, Bryan said she started photographing seven babies to make videos but was sadly left with only three, one of whom included Walker.
Capturing Hopes has spread beyond Winston-Salem, North Carolina, to Indianapolis as well. Bryan also said she has volunteers around the country so when a request comes in, she can find someone to go take photographs.
Find even more photos from Capturing Hopes on its Facebook page.