For her research Stillbirth Photography: A Healing Tool? Lena De Wolf investigated the role of photos of stillborn babies in the way that bereaved parents process their trauma. Taking photographs and regularly looking at them appears to support the grieving process of parents, other family members and even friends. De Wolf carried out the research for her master’s in agogic science at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel, which she passed with great distinction.

The inspiration for the study was a TV series on Canvas in which photographer Lieve Blancquaert explored practices relating to death around the world. De Wolf’s research consisted of in-depth interviews with parents who had lost a child at birth. The babies were all born after at least 20 weeks’ gestation, via vaginal delivery or C-section. De Wolf asked the parents about the impact of the stillbirth and the role that the photos played in their lives. The respondents were a statistically homogeneous group, all of whom dealt with the trauma in their own way and each of whom had a unique story. The interviews provided various insights into the use of photos in processing this kind of trauma.

"The results showed a positive impact from photos in all the respondents’ life stages," says De Wolf. "Not only did parents find solace in the photos, but they were also able to raise the subject more easily among family or with friends and acquaintances. Respondents indicated that the photographs helped them to process their trauma, to remember and hold on to the moment, and to give their grief and sometimes helplessness a place in their daily lives. They also indicated that the photos gave them a way to demonstrate to the outside world that they are proud of those children and were happy to have a way to give the child a space and carry them with them in a comforting way."

De Wolf points out that in contemporary practice, there is very often little or no physical trace of a stillborn child.

"Parents are sometimes given a footprint of their child, but usually there is nothing," she says. "However, before the 1950s, there was a tradition of immortalising stillborn children in photographs. Sometimes, there would even be a family photo taken with the baby. The tradition faded in the ensuing years, and by around 1990, taking photos was done only rarely. Then, from 2000, it became more important again. Sometimes people take their own photos with their mobile phones, but practice and interviews show that the most comforting photos are those taken by a professional photographer."

De Wolf explains:

"I wrote my thesis in collaboration with the organisation Boven De Wolken, which had contact with almost all the respondents, a collaboration they were largely satisfied with. Part of the intention was to provide a stepping stone to greater awareness around the subject. Not only to offer parents recognition and guidance but also to break the taboo and to make way for an open, positive atmosphere around the subject."