Labor To Love, Through A Lens
On a recent Sunday afternoon, JoAnn Marrero greeted Ashley and Benjamin Brandl as they arrived at her photography studio with their son Zane. The three went into an impromptu, whispery meeting, debating which props and outfits to use for their shoot. Their goal: To document a single, fleeting moment in time as their 16-month old son grows up.
But the Brandls do not take this moment for granted. Zane, a smiley baby with a Kewpie-doll lock of hair curling up from his head, is lightyears away from his tenuous, premature entry into the world. That’s where Marrero first met the family, in her work as a pro-bono photographer in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) at Yale-New Haven Hospital.
Trained as a doula, Marrero is a maternity and birth photographer who does free sessions in the NICU whenever she can make the time. She photographs babies who are often very tiny, documenting their first—and sometimes last—moments of life. To date, Marrero has photographed in the NICU over 200 times.
“This is my way of giving back,” she said in a recent interview. “People reach out and I’m happy to help if I have the time.” She has a routine: bouncing from room to room with her camera, careful and often quiet as she asks parents what they’d like. She meets parents like the Brandls, who are often spending hours on end in the hospital. For Marrero, these visits are “very busy and tiring,” but also extremely rewarding.
For parents like Ashley Brandl, that dedication is palpable. “JoAnn just has an eye. She never takes a bad picture,” she said. “It’s a memory you don’t want to remember, but it’s a memory you have to remember.”
She is talking about Zane, who weighed in at just 1 pound 12 ounces when he was born. In the pictures, his limbs are thin and wrinkled, he’s covered in tubes and wires. His palm is just wider than his mother’s pinky.
But looks can be deceiving, said Brandl: “Preemie babies are amazing. They are strong. Zane is the strongest person I know.”
Marrero said she loves recording NICU milestones—when a child moves from an incubator to a bassinet, is taken off of a breathing apparatus because they have enough lung capacity to do it on their own, or when parents and preemies have “skin-to-skin” time. This time to “just be” with each other: so simple, yet so special, she said.
“The tears start to flow.” Marrero said. “The family may have waited three months to hold their baby on their chest. It can be very intense, but it is still so beautiful.”
Marrero is witness to the tough moments, too. “It’s emotionally taxing when any baby passes,” Marrero said, “but especially when I’ve been photographing the family every two weeks, building relationships. Sometimes I don’t know how I do it. I just know that someone needs it and I have that talent. These parents deserve it after what they’ve been through.”
She recalled an occasion when a family asked her to photograph their child’s final moments. “The mom said, ‘Take pictures of everything,’ but every fifteen minutes or so I still needed to leave the room to compose myself. The most beautiful things happen before passing. As they removed all the apparatus, the mother’s face started lighting up and her son looked at her and kept smiling and smiling. The two of them were so focused on each other. It was like his gift to her, and then he took his last breath.”
“There is beauty in tragedy,” she added, her eyes filling with tears.
With medical advances, Marrero has met many families like the Brandls, whose babies grow up to be healthy children. When Zane was born, part of his brain was missing, and the family was told that he might have cerebral palsy.
“People said to have hope and they were right,” Ashley Brandl said. Just six days before this photo shoot in November, Zane took his first steps. Doctors say he’s making excellent developmental progress. But “even if he did have a disability, that would be more of a challenge for me than for him,” said Brandl. “That would be his normal. Disability isn’t the end of life. Trust your child and have hope.”
Brandl has plenty of advice for parents of preemies, and a lot of it overlaps with Marrero’s. “Always look forward to tomorrow. Even if today is the worst day, tomorrow can be different,” she said. “Trust that your baby is in the best hands possible with the nurses and doctors in the NICU.”
”I used to question why,” she added. “Why did he come early? That ‘why’ became ‘how.’ How can I help other parents?” Like Marrero coming into the NICU to share her services with parents, Brandl made a Facebook page for Zane. She said that his story has become a lifeline of support for other new mothers.
The Brandls have plans they couldn’t have imagined in 2016, when Zane was still in the NICU. This year, they’ll head to Disney for a family vacation. As Marrero snapped away, Ashley dressed Zane in Mickey Mouse pajamas and gave him presents covered in Mickey Mouse wrapping paper to play with.
The Brandls are also paying it forward by serving the March of Dimes as New Haven County’s Ambassador Family for 2018. According to the March of Dimes—whose mission is to prevent premature birth—race and postal code are the two most influential factors in determining a mother’s chance of delivering preterm.
9.4 percent of all babies are born prematurely in Connecticut. However, the premature birth rate for Black women in Connecticut is 12.4 percent. The March of Dimes advocates for policies that improve education and access to health care and resources for all mothers. The organization is working to expand research into the ways living and working conditions—including “health care, housing, jobs, neighborhood safety, food security, and income”—affect preterm birth rates.
As the family packed up and prepared to leave Marrero’s studio, Brandl said she remains joyful and optimistic. “I couldn’t be more thankful,” she said. “It’s a journey that I don’t regret. It made us stronger as a couple and stronger as people. We have a new outlook on life that miracles do happen.”
Those are miracles great and small that Marrero will continue documenting in the NICU this year. In her mind, she said, it is simply a quiet, consistent act of service.
“All I see is someone may lose something,” she said. “If I give them a photo, they can keep that memory. I feel blessed to do what I do.”
To find out more about JoAnn Marrero’s photography, visit her website. Brandl is hosting a “Zaneiacs” fundraiser at Fantasia in North Haven on March 23 to benefit March of Dimes. For tickets, email: firstname.lastname@example.org