Jennifer Phillips is an unusual photographer. She started a business that grew out of a hobby of taking pictures. That’s not such an unfamiliar story. It’s her Always Love Project that has given her a place in the hearts of local parents, ones who have endured the death of a child.
Always Love, a nonprofit organization, gives those parents photos to remember their children by, and it’s a pursuit that requires an especially deft touch with a camera and with people.
Phillips has gone through many transformations in her life. In addition to Always Love, she has a business now called Root and Wander Photography (formerly Jennifer Wolsey Photography). The Cazenovia mother of three children—Olivia, age 13, Madeline, 20, and Alex, 25—is engaged to be married, and she recently talked with Sistina Giordano about the changes she’s gone through. (This interview has been edited and condensed.)
How did your photography business get started?
Like eight years ago. I did it just as a hobby with my own kids and my friends’ kids. And then it started building into a little bit of a business. And then it became a necessity. I wasn’t charging anybody and I felt bad taking people’s money but I’d take $50 here and there. People would insist on paying me. I had never taken any photography classes ever. I have one camera and one lens.
How did you discover your love of photography?
I was seeing a therapist actually, and I was at a point in my life when I had a really hard time trying to express myself. She started teaching me to use the camera as a tool to experience emotion without being attached to it. I was able to use the camera as a shield in the beginning.
As a stay-at-home mom, was there ever a time that you wanted to do more and be more than that?
I should probably say yes, but I really didn’t. From the time I was very little, I wanted to be a mom. That was all I wanted. I started at 21 and I just loved being home. But I also didn’t go to college, and even though I knew that I was good at taking care of people, I didn’t really feel like I had a skill.
How did your photography business evolve?
I was a stay-at-home mom and that was still my extra thing that I did as money on the side. And when my ex-husband left, it became the only means we had in the beginning to be financially responsible.
I sat in that living room after he left. I had no food. They shut off our power, our heat and it was just me and my three kids, and I had negative 32 dollars in the bank. And that’s how we were left. And it’s still overwhelming. I did mini-photo sessions to pay for a divorce.
Something you love turns into a financial necessity—what was that like?
I was terrified but I’m really lucky because I have so much support. I never worked in the work force, ever. I went right from high school to having kids, so I had nothing to fall back on. And I really, really didn’t want to leave Olivia, my youngest. She was 10 and we had been through so much. We moved, we lost our home, and it was a lot and I didn’t want her to come home to nobody after school. I knew I could work the hours around this and that’s the same time that the Always Love Project came out of nowhere.
You say Always Love came out of nowhere—but really it came out of somewhere. How did it evolve?
I had a really good friend who was a child life specialist at Golisano Children’s Hospital. She would ask me a couple times if I would be interested in taking photos of moms who come in and who have lost babies. And I said absolutely not. I was like, “That’s way too much emotion for me. I have no training and I’ve never been to the hospital except having my kids and leaving.”
One day my friend called and said that there was a young mom, 19, and she had no family, and she was going to lose her baby. My friend asked if I would come up to the hospital and take some photos. I said I would go. I got up to the hospital and we were all waiting in the waiting room for four hours. I was with the doctors and the case workers, and they’re all waiting for me to do my thing.
Finally, the baby was born and we all went into the room, and I stood up and I said, “You guys, I have a confession to make: I’ve never done this before.”
But she was this young girl—and I could relate to being a young mom. The mom just looked at me like any other mom. I could see the love between her and her baby, and it was so beautiful that it overshadowed the situation we were in.
Before I had my daughter Madeline, I had a miscarriage. At that time, they just gave you a little Polaroid out of an instant camera. I just wanted it to be a different experience for this mom. We bathed the baby and put a pretty headband on her and wrapped her in a pink blanket I brought. I said, “This is your daughter and your beautiful baby.” It was life changing for me, and I wanted to do it again the next day.
How soon after did you go back and take more photos for moms and families?
They said at the hospital initially that they would use me twice a year. But I remember that the week my husband left us, I had four babies pass away that week and they called me in for all four. I remember thinking, “How can this be happening? I have no energy. I’m not sleeping, I’m not eating, I’m a disaster, and I’m getting called to do this work that I don’t feel like I’m in a good place to really do.”
So how did you pull yourself together to be able to do it?
I really feel like it’s what I’m supposed to do, and I just told myself to do it and take the next step and that I’ll be fine. And soon after, we kept going and we started a Gofundme page and we started our own nonprofit.
What did photographing babies who have passed teach you?
The most powerful part of it is that I meet these babies that the world will never know. For the most part, the grandparents aren’t there and the siblings aren’t there. To be able to hold a baby that the world is never going to know is so powerful. I feel selfish because it’s such an honor for me. And I’m amazed every time by the parents.
Where do you stand with Always Love?
I would give up my photography business in a heartbeat to do this work every day, but I’m only able to afford to work with just a handful of families. And now it’s branched out to become maternity photos, and then a delivery and the birth and death of that child. And outside of those sessions, I will go back and capture the new life after their first loss.
Now your business is thriving and you’re expanding. What’s happening with Root and Wander?
It’s still day to day. Financially, it’s scary: Even though it’s growing, it’s scary. There are so many people who see what I’m doing and think “I can do that!” And digital cameras make things great. And constantly you see people that are charging less. And I worry about my skill level. But I always come from a place of love and keeping that part going is super important to me.
Eight years ago, your life was very different. Now as a single parent—even though you’re newly engaged—what has your life taught you?
I have a tattoo that says “Everything you want is on the other side of fear.” Life is going to keep on going, and I see it with these babies. Do you want to feel it? Do you want to experience it? Do you want to be part of it? I could get a job that would let me punch in and punch out, but finding something that you’re passionate about will keep you going.
What advice do you have for parents reading this?
You have to listen to something inside of you. Our soul is always talking to us. Our gut is always talking to us and we’re programmed to ignore that. We’re programmed from the time that we’re little to override what our bodies and souls are telling us. If you can listen to that, especially in your darkest time, that’s when it’s talking to you the loudest.
Where do you see yourself going?
I love doing photography and I love the happy times from families, but I still feel like the money from that propels me to do the Always Love Project. If I could I would do that all the time. That’s my goal, to do that work every day.
Do you feel better today?
I provide for myself and I’m very proud of that. It’s scary when I think about the future because it’s not like I get a paycheck every Friday, so if I don’t plan right then I could be stuck. And that can be stressful. But I’m doing it.
What brought me to photography in the first place was the fear of going into my shell. But life is just so much more beautiful when you just show up regardless. Just show up and you’re going to be fine.