The photographer's NICU

The rusted-out shell of an old factory lay sleeping across the road. The paper in my bag said TEXTURE IN LANDSCAPE, one of several assignments. I was shooting with black and white film and loved the lines of the corrugated steel, the chasm and the darkness beyond its door. I raised my brother’s 40-year-old Pentax to my face. A burly, long-legged dog appeared just then, emerging from the darkness like a submarine from the deep.

In Vancouver, throughout my twenties, I worked towards a photography diploma at night. I wandered the city with pockets stuffed with rolls of film, and encamped in darkrooms to paint with light. It’s the only mathematics my brain has ever understood: the perfectly symbiotic interplay of aperture, shutter speed, ISO. It appeals to me as baking appeals to others in times of stress: no matter what is happening in the world, add powder or soda plus temperature and humidity and something sweet rises just so, indefatigably, no matter what. Like baking, photography is one of those lifelong practices. To capture moments and people and faces beautifully warms the room just the same as a hot oven.


My babies were a terrible sight. Liam in particular, in the first days after he was born so traumatically… I was afraid of him, for him. His legs splayed open, his skin swollen and puffed, bright purple, every inch of him covered with intervention: blue tape, needles, IV, ventilator, bili lights. He was a cyborg, a specimen, a butterfly pinned to a board.

Having seen him, I knew I would have to figure out how to see him. Does that make any sense? His context knocked me off my feet. My fear was in the way of my love. To see the boy who might be—who might have been—his soft flesh, the baby underneath—I would have to work my way through his shocking circumstance. First, I picked up my camera almost in defense of his space, circling the intensive care unit like a caged animal. I knew what would happen if I allowed any camera other than mine close to Liam and Ben.

The incubator was a precisely controlled environment. The only way I could be inside with him, in his world, was with my lens. I shrank myself and curled up beside him, seeing him not through plastic but inside it. I saw toes and fingers, the clammy flush of heat, the fuzz at the nape of his neck. Every day, I pushed myself to go inside. Every day, a well-meaning nurse or relative might approach with a point-and-shoot and I would say Please, no. No snapshots. Well-meaning and blurry, well-meaning and sad, a reduction of him to his trauma. Someone else’s pictures would compete with my narrative, in which he was more than that. His memory was mine to shape. This was how I loved him.


Ben looks over my shoulder. I had been cleaning out an old hard drive, and we are scrolling. He sees Liam sucking on his fingers. He and his twin nose-to-nose, drifting in and out of sleep. I want to see that one! Is that him? Is that me? How did you know? How can you tell?

Oh, darling. I could tell. I could see Liam's pain. Ben, love, you were already growing plump in small ways, your skin hanging off your bird bones in folds like a shar-pei puppy but with a glow of calmness. Gram by gram you recovered in ordinary ways, extraordinarily. You fussed to get out of there and go home. I knew you from one another by every tiny wail of yours and all of Liam’s silence. Liam, my love. Liam had a pallor, a misshapenness, his fists curled up in distress. This is how I knew, sweetheart.

But I don’t say that. I say I just knew. Ben smiles.

Show me that one, he says, pointing at a thumbnail. I hesitate. It is from their first day or two. It makes me cry. There was no best effort to be made. He was an emergency. He was death. Show me, says his identical brother, ten years later. Whose foot is that?

I double-click. It’s Liam, love.


I know.

Why is it like that?

The first few days were very hard for Liam.

It is a photograph of the bottom of his heel. His ankle is wrapped in tape, holding lines in place. His skin shines taut over swollen blood, deep purple, and his foot is littered with pinpricks, only day two of his life but every second of it so far filled with pain and intervention.

Why did they do that? He is looking at the pinpricks.

The doctors would take a little pinch of blood, and they would look at it under a microscope to see if it was okay.

Was it okay? He said, hopefully.

It was only in that moment, ten years later, that I figured out why I did it. Why I circled the NICU like an animal, fending off every other lens. It was for Ben, for his ballast. So that someday, he might attach Liam’s humanity back to him, like Peter Pan’s shadow, despite all the rest.

He was brave, sunshine. He was your lovely brother. Look at his hair! It was just like yours.

We would have played tricks on everybody, he says, leaning his head on my shoulder as we both gaze at the screen. Ben smiles.


Do you have photographs of your lost child? Are they a treasure, a nightmare, or both? What are they to you now, and how have they altered your story over time?