I am often asked by potential employers the following question:
“What was the hardest project you have ever worked on?”
The answer is simply: Grady.
About three years ago, I was asked by a friend’s daughter to photograph her second son, Grady. It was a difficult pregnancy, and she delivered prematurely. He was at Oregon Health Science University Hospital, in the Neonatal ICU. He was 11 days old. He was still in an incubator, and she and the baby’s father had made the difficult decision to remove him from life support.
Being a friend of the family, I of course said yes immediately. Then it struck me like an 18 wheeler: they wanted me to document the time when they pulled Grady off of life support, and slowly spend time with the family, photographing everyone, as they said their goodbyes.
I was going to document the death of an infant.
I arrived two days later, with my equipment and in a suit. The only way I could manage even doing this was being as professional as I could. Everyone was helpful and respectful as I hid under tables, stood in corners and stayed pretty much quiet for the next hour.
The last shot I took was the one you see posted: the baby was slowly stopping breathing, surrounded by his mother, his father, and his older brother, who had no idea what was going on.
I processed the film and digital shots within a couple of days. After I delivered the pictures, the family said thank you. I told them I was honored to have been chosen to perform this task. I refused to take they money the offered me, instead asking them to donate it to the hospital where Grady had spend his entire time on Earth.
In days of old, photography was incredibly expensive. Often, the only picture a family had of a loved one was at their funeral. I looked at this project in much the same way. This was documentary photography of the most personal nature.
When I got home, I said hello to my husband, went upstairs to my office, and cried my eyes out for what seemed like hours. This isn’t the kind of project where you say “good job” or “great pics”. It is the kind of project that doesn’t win you awards or land you a job at some glossy fashion magazine. It is the kind of job that separates the men from the boys.
To add an even greater sense of what I had done, the family had a video camera with the final hour stolen from their vehicle about a week after the event. The only visual documents they had of their infant son were the shots I had taken. I think about this project often, especially when I work on more esoteric items. No one can ever complain or edit or make a project seem so daunting that I cannot accept it or do my damn best work on it. Because nothing, I and truly mean nothing, will ever have the gravity, the weight or the burden of my being the best professional at anything I do than the Grady project.
Love to you all.