Lindsey Villatoro is an event and portrait photographer based in Menifee, California. She’s a wife and a mother of three girls who loves taking photos of babies, children, destination weddings and families – what she considers to be a “photographer of life.” But she also offers another unique photography service: “Forever Loved” sessions. These are portraits that a family wants of their loved ones who have either recently recovered from an illness, are incurably terminal or (in the case of this particular story) have recently died. I reached out to Lindsey to give us a look at one of her most recent clients’ story.
“As a mother, the last phone call / email I want to get for a ‘Forever Loved’ session is anything that has to do with a child. Friday afternoon, as I was preparing for my weekend sessions with all three of my girls, I got an email from a girl named Kelly, telling me her sweet friend just found out her baby had died. She told me some details and asked if I would contact the family to be there in their time of need.” This is how Lindsey describes she came to meet with Emily and Richard Staley for the first time. Emily had a healthy pregnancy for over thirty weeks, but noticed her baby hadn’t been moving one morning. After visiting the doctor and having an ultrasound performed, it was discovered that the baby died due to its umbilical cord getting wrapped around its neck inside her womb. This would be such a tragic discovery for any mother-to-be so far along in her pregnancy. Emily’s friend reached out to Lindsey knowing that she takes on a limited amount of pro-bono work when a family in need is nominated for this sort of photography. Lindsey contacted the couple and met them the next morning at the hospital when Emily chose to deliver her baby by C-section. Lindsey was with the couple during the delivery of their stillborn daughter, and over seven hours throughout the day taking photographs of the six pound, two-and-a-half ounce, Monroe Faith Staley. She took pictures of Monroe and her parents while grieving together and celebrating what a perfect looking child they had created before saying their final goodbyes.
Lindsey and I talked on the phone for quite a while about how she handles such situations. She actually takes on 14-20 clients a month who are either battling a life-threatening illness like cancer, those who are already terminal, or who those want to honor their recently deceased family member. Many of these clients are nominated to her, receiving completely free sessions. The remaining clients who contact her directly are offered unlimited time and receive everything from her at a very affordable reduced rate of around $150 as opposed to what she offers and prices a normal portrait session. I was afraid of how she might be perceived as taking advantage of people at an emotional moment, but it’s quite humbling to talk with her and discover everything she’s doing is out of the goodness of her heart. From everything she told me, she’s going well above and beyond in order to bring comfort to families in need. Unlike the similar non-for-profit group Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep, who offer photography to families in hospitals who have delivered stillborn babies, Lindsey doesn’t limit herself in any way – often driving several hours to reach her clients, working with parents who have lost children outside of the hospital, and with children who were older than infants. She also photographs adults where she documents their story and eventual triumph over an illness, or the complicated process of death that often follows.
Lindsey has recently written on Facebook about this particular story, and explained that Emily and Richard Staley have a five year-old son who loved his sister very dearly, and that he was eagerly awaiting the moment when he could finally meet his baby sister. She further explained to me during our conversation that the death of an infant is one that affects the entire family. It’s something I didn’t really think about, being a guy without children. However, I do still feel a strong connection to this story through knowing that between my sister and myself, my mother went full-term with a baby that she learned would be stillborn. For whatever reason, she had to endure months of awkward belly rubs and conversations she would rather avoid before finally delivering the older brother I never had the chance to meet. Documenting these children for parents that want to have photographs to look back at is amazing. It helps bring closure to a family during a difficult time, but it also helps celebrate the beloved life of a member that wasn’t able to spend a reasonable amount time with their family… the kind of time that many of us often take for granted.
I admitted to Lindsey that there’s just no way that I could ever do what she does for families like the Staleys without it destroying me. She told me how it’s not an easy assignment to take on and, in this case, it was one of the most difficult times for her because she couldn’t help breaking down to cry quite often during her portrait shoot of Emily and Richard’s daughter, Monroe. “Any image that came to mind, I shot. I wanted this family to have every possible memory of this child I could physically give them.” Lindsey taught me that the one thing that helps relieve a mother after giving birth to her child is the sound of it crying. “It’s the only time you’re truly happy to hear your baby crying out uncontrollably.” And in this case, it was heartbreaking not to hear that cry as the doctors brought Monroe out of Emily’s belly inside the operating room. “Emily kept asking if her baby was out yet and I just couldn’t hold back my tears knowing that she would never hear that comforting cry… that her baby would never open its eyes.” It’s an emotional journey that Lindsey admits affects her life as well by taking time away from her husband and children as she sometimes spends long amounts of time away – often without being paid at all to do so. But I think she has to do it. It’s just who she is, and I’m really humbled by the amount of compassion within her heart.
The Staleys wanted their story to be shared, in the hope that it could bring any amount of comfort to other families that have lost their child in such an unexpected and tragic way.
All images used with permission.