Together Again: Portraits for Grieving Families

After Aly Elliott, M.Photog., CPP, experienced the death of her daughter Keely in 2007 and for years after, she longed to have a photograph showing all her children together, including Keely. In family portraits, she’d incorporate Keely’s memory by including a special memento like her baby blanket or teddy bear. Then she struck on the idea of creating an image that would show Keely herself. And create it she did. It was a powerful moment. “Even though I built the image, to stand back and look at all of my children lined up together was incredibly emotional,” she says. “It was a moment I thought I’d never get.”

After that, Elliott spent four years creating similar photos for other grieving families. The first families were friends she’d made through an online support group after her daughter’s death. Then word spread, and she began traveling around the country to make portraits for other families. She named the series “Hiraeth,” a Welsh word that means homesickness for a place to which you cannot return. 

As part of her creative process, Elliott learned about the departed child from family members. “Very often, upon hearing about the lives and deaths of the children,” she says, “the story would present itself to me in a way that was almost out of my hands.”

Elliott would design an image for the family then travel to their hometown to make the portrait—sometimes in front of a green screen, sometimes on location. In post-production she’d composite an image telling the story she envisioned. Past photos of siblings were often used to build an image of the deceased child that she then detailed with characteristics the parents had de-scribed such as a dimple, hair texture, or eye color. Some families brought the child’s clothing to the session to be incorporated into the composition.

“Child death is a hard topic,” Elliott says. But it’s a bereaved parent’s everyday life. “I wanted to create a place that they could visit, a place where they had a tangible dream, a place where they could show other people what we see every day: our children in our lives, still.” 

Amanda Arnold is associate editor of Professional Photographer.