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Women at Work: Heartfelt healing—a photo speaks a thousand words

Laura Peppas

Many therapists believe a camera can be used as a tool for healing. Through the lens, they argue, a moment can be created which allows those who have difficulty talking about what they feel to speak through images.

For parents of stillborns in particular, photographs can be a piece of tangible evidence that serves as a precious reminder that, if only for a moment, their baby was on this earth.

Heartfelt 1 - Gavin Blue

Little baby Serena. Photography: Gavin Blue, Heartfelt

 

Healing through images is something Canberra photographer Hilary Wardhaugh is a firm believer in.

For over four years she has been the ACT representative for Heartfeltan Australia-wide charity of professional photographers who, when asked by parents, photograph stillborn and premature babies and terminally ill children free of charge. Heartfelt representatives then send prints and CDs of the photographs to the child’s family soon after they are taken.

In the last 12 months, the charity, which relies completely on donations from the general public, has photographed 1,200 parents across Australia and New Zealand.

Heartfelt’s photos are touching, devastating and beautiful all at once. Many show parents clutching little feet or hands, or simply gazing at their tiny being, lost in the moment. Heartfelt photographers will usually sit with families for about an hour, gently guiding parents through a session.

Hope, by Gavin Blue Heartfelt

Hope. Photography: Gavin Blue, Heartfelt

 

One of seven Heartfelt photographers in the ACT region, Hilary says the process is an “extremely important part of healing” for the families she visits.

“In the days gone by, they often used to take the baby away from the mother without them even seeing it, and the trauma that’s left with that person was quite considerable,” Hilary says.

“Some people are scared they’re going to forget they had the baby, and want to use the images for the future. For some of them, just having the knowledge they have a photo of that child is help enough; a reminder they gave birth to a physical being.”

Hilary admits it’s an emotional job and there have been a few sessions where she has broken down.

“I’ve cried a couple of times – I try not to get too emotional, but some of the sessions have really affected me, whereas others you can just go in there and leave the camera almost as a barrier,” she says.

“If I have a particularly traumatic session, we’ve got lovely people all around Australia that I can ring just to download on because they’ve been through the same thing, so it definitely helps.”

The former radiographer says she wanted to become involved with Heartfelt because it was a way to use her expertise and talent in a fundamental way.

“So many people say ‘I don’t know how you can do what you do,’” says Hilary.

“But it’s a way for us as team volunteers to give back to the community and for no other reason other than it helps people – there’s no money that changes hands. I was a radiographer for almost 20 years prior to when I started photography 15 years ago, and I photographed these little babies who survived, so it was sort of a way to go full circle.”

Jordan_Gavin Blue, Heartfelt

Jordan. Photography: Gavin Blue, Heartfelt

 

Though Hilary, a mother of one, has never experienced a stillbirth herself, she says many of the other volunteers know the pain of losing a baby and understand what parents are going through.

“The fact that these photographers can be called within a moment’s notice and be there to do this, with great compassion and sensitivity, is just wonderful,” she says.

One the off chance a photographer cannot make it to a session, there are back-up camera kits available at hospitals, where nurses can take a photo for parents to take home.

In December, one Canberra family was so grateful for Heartfelt’s service, they raised money to donate two $860 kits; one of which will reside at the special care nursery at The Canberra Hospital and the other which will be used in the special care nursery at Calvary Healthcare. In the last 18 months, $108,000 has been raised by the community to go towards the camera kits.

“It just shows how important the charity is, and the representatives from the hospitals were overwhelmed by the generosity,” Hilary says.

To donate to Heartfelt or for more information, visit the Heartfelt website.

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Laura Peppas

Laura Peppas is HerCanberra's senior journalist and communications manager and is the Editor of Unveiled, HerCanberra's wedding magazine. She is enjoying uncovering all that Canberra has to offer, meeting some intriguing locals and working with a pretty awesome bunch of women. Laura has lived in Canberra for most of her life and when she's not writing fervently she enjoys pursuing her passion for travel, reading, online shopping and chai tea. More about the Author

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