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Photographer’s work helps heal hearts

Katey Pettengill believes her imagery can be helpful in the grieving process, that her photographs make memories tangible. (Photo by Katey Pettengill)1 / 4
Pettengill believes that evoking a deeper emotional connection helps elevate her photographic approach above the mainstream. (Photo by Katey Pettengill)2 / 4
“My growth as a photographer has been exponential. I attribute that to being in those difficult situations, difficult lighting conditions, difficult editing conditions, and carrying those experiences forward,” Katey Pettengill said. (Photo by Katey Pettengill)3 / 4
Photographer Katey Pettengill specializes in newborn photography using natural light at her studio in New Richmond. (Photo by Tom Lindfors)4 / 4

“I was working as a social worker in South Dakota when my son was born. He was 9-months-old when my cousin ended up having a baby with a trisomy disorder. Her daughter ended up living only 36 days. I felt helpless. In the midst of not knowing what to do for my cousin, I went online and somehow found Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep (NILMDTS),” Katey Pettengill said.

According to its website, NILMDTS trains, educates and mobilizes professional-quality photographers to provide beautiful heirloom portraits at no cost to families facing the untimely death of an infant. They believe these images serve as an important step in the family’s healing process by honoring the child’s legacy.

As a trained social worker, Pettengill was working primarily with the elderly and hospice care patients acquiring skills and experience that would eventually help her change careers.

“It was killing me to be away from my son four days a week. I asked myself, is there a way I could make photography into a business and then grow into that sort of a role (for NILMDTS)?” Pettengill said. “At that point, I was a mom with a camera. That’s what started the ball rolling on me wanting to become a photographer, being able to spend more time with my child and also wanting to volunteer for NILMDTS.”

That was nearly four years ago.

Armed with a degree in social work, Pettengill set out to teach herself how to become a professional photographer. 3M provided a fortuitous career opportunity for her husband prompting the family to move to New Richmond. Taking advantage of educational tools available on the Internet, and using trial and error, mostly at the expense of her young son, Pettengill made the transition from social work to childrens photography starting Kateydid Photography.

“I tell my son he just showed up at our house at 18 months, because before that my photographs of him just weren’t good enough,” Pettengill said.

Before moving to New Richmond, Pettengill realized it would be important to segregate her business from her family life so they built an addition onto their new house to act as a studio, including a separate entrance, office space, washroom and shooting space. Another bit of good fortune, her assistant from South Dakota ended up moving to New Richmond as well, enabling them to continue their working relationship. While Pettengill handles the majority of photography and the business side of things, her assistant provides wardrobe and styling support, some product design assistance, but most importantly a second set of hands on set insuring the safety of their young subjects.

Before moving to New Richmond, Pettengill researched the local market and found the local competition for the senior portrait market very competitive. Although she still offers family and senior portraiture, she has worked hard to distinguish her niche specifically as a photographer of newborns specializing in the use of natural light.

“I look back on my life and think everything that I did was leading up to this. I don’t think I could do what I do for NILMDTS without having the social work background,” Pettengill said.

She explained there is an application process photographers hoping to volunteer for NILMDTS must undergo. Pettengill’s expecting her third child this spring and as a result will have to stop accepting assignments from NILMDTS for a bit. Prior to this respite, Pettengill frequently found herself volunteering up to 60 hours a month for NILMDTS. In the interim, she has accepted a position as a member of the local review team and acts as the NILMDTS coordinator for western Wisconsin and the Stillwater area.

“In the Twin Cities there is a pretty big shortage of photographers doing this kind of work, and we have to turn some families away,” Pettengill said.

In her position as a reviewer, Pettengill notes that most of the unsolicited photographers applying to work for NILMDTS are young and inexperienced. NILMDTS prefers to use top-notch, established professionals who meet their expectations and are willing to employ their rubric based on more than nine years of experience working in this highly charged emotional environment. Photographers are expected to understand how to use auxiliary lighting to manipulate light and shadows and have experience editing. They must also be willing to donate their services.

“After belonging to NILMDTS, I realized we have a great network in place. But coming from a social work background, I also realized we need to support our active photographers emotionally,” Pettengill said.

Working for NILMDTS can take an emotional toll on a photographer. With experience, Pettengill recognized how important it was to create a balance between the emotional drain inherent in shoots for NILMDTS with the rest of her life.

“The majority of children have passed away. I’m seeing moms who have carried their child 36, 39, 40 weeks and something happens at the end, and their baby stops moving and has passed away. Having a beautiful portrait of their child who passed away, especially in vitro, helps them remember their child and share that child with the world. In this day and age, the grieving process really includes sharing that child who has been lost,” Pettengill said.

A short life is still a life. Photography done well can honor that life.

“My very first mom has a big canvas of one of my images. It is not scary for people to walk in and see, because it was lit well and well edited. She can tell her children, who were young at the time, this is what your sister looked like,” Pettengill said.

She believes imagery can be helpful in the grieving process, that her photographs make memories tangible. Listening to Pettengill talk about the process of honoring a brand new life cut tragically short, one gets the sense that it is an almost sacred privilege to be entrusted with such a responsibility.

“Mothers often confide in in me that I am the only person who got to see their son or daughter,” Pettengill said.

Pettengill has been able to nurture some of those sensitive opportunities into relationships allowing her to provide continuing photographic services to those mothers as they go on to experience the joy of successfully having children.

Early in her career, Pettengill found it useful to employ the methods prescribed by the Beloved Movement as a way to elicit specific emotions out of her subjects. Evoking that deeper emotional connection, Pettengill believes, elevates her photographic approach above the mainstream. It also allows her to charge a premium for her services.

Pettengill recognized that moms with cameras take lots of photos of their children, but that the majority of those images either never make it out of the camera or if they do, they never reach a form that can be publicly accessed and that celebrates those cherished memories. Pettengill devotes time to educating her clients about ways to display her images using a variety of custom made products such as albums, canvases and photo boxes that help them appreciate the quality and artistic merit of her imagery.

Pettengill has learned how to employ all that she has learned from her assignments on behalf of NILMDTS.

“It happened almost exactly a year ago. It was one of my most difficult (NILMDTS) sessions. I walked away from it devastated because it was a very sad story,” Pettengill said. “Their daughter had just been taken off life support. She ended up living for 20 hours after my photo session. But I realized in the midst of their grief, I was able to take the worst hours of their lives and actually solicit happy memories from them. I feel like in the past year, since that experience, my growth as a photographer has been exponential. I attribute that to being in those difficult situations, difficult lighting conditions, difficult editing conditions, and carrying those experiences forward.”

Pettengill’s work is online at Her studio, Kateydid Photography, is located at 1144 134th Avenue in the Town of Richmond, and open by appointment only.