Toughest job people do for free
WARNING: This story contains images of stillborn babies.
PHOTOGRAPHER Julieanne Perera spends her workdays being paid to capture life's happiest moments, shooting weddings, happy families and fun commercial campaigns.
But about once a month she receives a request to photograph a family enduring the worst day of their lives - the birth of their stillborn baby - and she does it all for free.
Ms Perera is a member of Heartfelt, a volunteer organisation of 350 professional photographers across Australia and New Zealand who photograph around 150 stillborn babies and their families a month.
Having a set of beautiful photographs of their child can help parents of stillborn babies hang on to precious memories.
"One of the common fears parents have is that they will forget what their baby looks like,"
Heartfelt president Gavin Blue told news.com.au.
"It also helps make it real for their friends and family. If you can have a photographer create some gentle, non-confronting photos, the families are more likely to share that within their community. They can see it was a fully formed baby. They can be a bit more understanding about what they're going through," Mr Blue said.
Heartfelt's network of photographers communicate via a private Facebook group and text. When a stillborn baby is born and its parents request a photographer, an alert is sent out to members in the relevant state.
"Sometimes we can get a photographer to them in under an hour. In one state we might miss one session a month because we just can get there. It's not uncommon for a member to drive a couple of hours to get to a family. The members are so amazing to get there. It's really gutsy of them to volunteer to go into that space," Mr Blue said.
"We're often the first non-medical people that the parents see, so just the fact that someone is happy to drop everything and come in, that's half the service. When the world has gone to shit, just the fact that someone is willing to do something kind can mean the world."
Most Heartfelt photographers have some personal experience with pregnancy or infant loss, including Ms Perera, who lost a baby at 20 weeks.
While her Heartfelt photography sessions are "incredibly difficult", Ms Perera says it's when she leaves that she realises the impact she has made.
"It's about being able to give a gift that not many people can give. It's totally irreplaceable," she said.
"Sometimes it's a very difficult situation. I've gone into sessions where I've been there for two to three hours and I've been in sessions that last only five to 10 minutes. It's the worst moment of their lives and you have to meet all their needs and have to be thinking on your feet … about what to say, what not to say. It's just about honouring their baby."
What makes such a tough job worthwhile is the messages of support she receives from parents.
"We do get beautiful messages and it's in those moments that I realise what I get out if it.
It took a long time for my family and friends to understand why I was doing something like this. But the parents say they are beyond grateful and that they have no way of repaying us or thanking us," Ms Perera said.
A stillbirth is defined as the birth of a baby after 20 weeks gestation or weighing 400g or more, who shows no signs of life. About 2000 stillborn babies are born in Australia each year, or about one baby every five hours.
Stillbirth advocates say more research and public awareness is needed to reduce that rate, so a senate select committee inquiry has been set up to report on the future of stillbirth research and education in Australia.
The inquiry is currently calling for public submissions, which close on June 29, and the committee will report its findings next year.
Only eight public submissions have been made so far, but many of those women chose to have their stillborn babies photographed by a Heartfelt volunteer.
"Straight after Franklin was born I had to be taken for surgery," wrote Christine Prosser, who lost her son Franklin in 2014.
"Franklin was brought back to us the next morning when I was awake. He was cold and his skin was dark and delicate. We spent time looking at him and cuddling him and had some more beautiful photos taken by a volunteer Heartfelt photographer."
But not all parents are educated about the various ways they can commemorate their child's life, including having a photographer capturing their last moments together.
Sydney woman Jennie Klohs wrote in her public submission that she only found out about the option to take photographs of her stillborn baby Maddison when it was too late.
"There needs to be bereavement suits in all major hospitals in Australia to help give a little comfort and privacy in such a horrible time. In the suits there need to be resources and information on services that is available to parents such as photography, hand and footprint inking and Angels gowns … most of which I found out about when it was too late," Mrs Klohs wrote.
If you're a professional photographer who would like to volunteer with Heartfelt, visit heartfelt.org.au
If you are looking for more information about stillbirths visit The Stillbirth Foundation or Sands, an organisation supporting those experiencing miscarriages, stillbirths and newborn deaths. Sands has a 24 hour support line on 1300 072 637.
You can make a public submission to the Senate's stillbirth inquiry online. Submissions close on June 29.
If you'd like to share your stillbirth story with news.com.au, email firstname.lastname@example.org.