Love, through a lens
The photographers with Little Blessings document the lives of chronically and terminally ill babies with intimate, moving portraits
Jessie Watkins vaguely remembers her little sister Elizabeth.
Elizabeth was born at 27 weeks in July 1996. She weighed 368 grams and measured 10 inches long. Her twin brother Seth died right after birth, but Elizabeth seemed stable.
She stayed at the UC Davis Neonatal Intensive Care Unit for a few months, went home to Grass Valley, and then died just a few months later in December.
Watkins was 5 years old at the time. She recalls being in the car a lot—driving to and from the hospital. But her memories of Elizabeth essentially stem from four photos that hang above the family’s fireplace.
Fast-forward to 2012 at Sacramento City College, where Jessie was working through the nursing program and taking photography classes for fun. Local photographer Diana Miller was a guest lecturer in one of those classes. She talked about her journey from full-time nurse to full-time photographer and her belief in giving back to the community. She briefly explained her own project, Little Blessings, for which she offered complimentary portrait sessions for children with life-limiting—a.k.a. terminal—illnesses.
And what was Miller’s final slide? A picture of Elizabeth.
“I just gasped in air,” Watkins said. “I was shaking and convulsing and couldn’t talk.”
The coincidence—or as she said, fate—was too much to handle. As it turns out, Miller was Elizabeth’s nurse at UC Davis. And Miller took the photos of Elizabeth that now hang in the Watkins’ home.
Watkins took their encounter as a sign that she should pursue photography, not nursing, and that she should also work for Miller. She started interning, and last year, became Miller’s full-time office assistant.
Meeting Watkins was striking for Miller as well. A photo of Elizabeth hangs in her Citrus Heights studio—a black-and-white shot of Elizabeth’s tiny, fragile body engulfed by her father’s hands. Elizabeth was Miller’s first Little Blessings baby, and the Watkins said they were so relieved to have the keepsake.
“We don’t have any other beautiful photos of Elizabeth to remember her by,” said her mother April Watkins. “We look at them all the time and we think about our wonderful memories with her.”
Miller said she wasn’t thinking that far ahead at the time.
“I didn’t think she was going to die, but it ended up turning into a remembrance thing,” she said.
Miller left nursing two years later, pursued photography professionally and eventually became the president of the Professional Photographers of Sacramento Valley. She wanted to create a service project for the association, and Little Blessings was born. But it wasn’t until late last year that the project evolved into what it is today.
In 2004, a larger San Francisco-based nonprofit, Moment by Moment, expanded into Sacramento. The organization offers the same photography services, so Little Blessings became Miller’s solo side project until Moment by Moment left the region in 2013.
Now Miller and El Dorado Hills-based photographer Lynn Greene manage an army of 35 photographers to answer requests from UC Davis Medical Center and Sutter Medical Center.
Watkins has conducted three portrait sessions for Little Blessings so far. It took her seven months to get over her nerves, but she felt the need to volunteer because of how Little Blessings shaped her own life.
“Those pictures are my memories of my sister,” she said. “That’s what I try to think about when I’m shooting. What is this moment in time really going to mean 10 or 15 years down the road?”
Here’s how it works: When a child is diagnosed with a chronic or life-limiting illness, hospital staff ask the family members if they want a complimentary portrait session. Staff alerts Miller. Miller emails the photographers. A volunteer goes to the site, conducts a session and sends the family a final disc of images. Very little information about the families is shared with Little Blessings to ensure privacy—all the volunteers are trained to uphold the hospitals’ confidentiality standards.
Miller said she’s been able to answer every request so far. Courtnee Hoogland, a child-life specialist with the UC Davis Children’s Hospital, said she’s never heard of a family rejecting the services.
“Everyone wants a legacy of their child—to have something to hold onto later, regardless of life-limiting illnesses,” Hoogland said.
For the photographers, some mental preparation is also required. Watkins said she was visibly shaking during her first session, but that it gets easier each time.
Leilani Paular, a Carmichael-based volunteer photographer, said she has to remind herself that she’s providing a service, and most of all, not to get emotional.
“I need to be on my game,” she said. “Everyone’s thinking about the uniqueness of the situation, but it’s also a photo session, and we’re going to come together, smile and have this memory.”
Any family portrait can have obstacles, but the sessions for Little Blessings carry their own challenges. Photographers noted the awful fluorescent lighting in hospitals and needing to make sure the scary-looking equipment is out of the frame. Avoid flash. Avoid asking questions. Be mindful of tubes and medication schedules. And be careful with the subject—sometimes the baby can’t be moved at all.
Still, the resulting portraits reflect powerful, intimate moments. A father holds twins in his lap, one healthy and one dying, with a shocked, haunted look in his eye. Pumps and chords surround a smiling family, who in turn, surrounds its own impossibly tiny baby. There are close-ups of little hands, little feet and kisses on little foreheads. Miller called them celebrations of spirit and hope, rather than sad portrayals of loss. Volunteers agreed.
“It’s something families don’t often think about, but we’re here and we find it important,” Paular said. “As photographers, we want to document lives.”
For the Watkins, remembering the lives of their lost children is a vital part of the healing process. And the constant reminder—the photos hanging in the living room—helps.
“It’s never going to go away,” April Watkins said. “Elizabeth and Seth are always going to be part of us.”