The Empty Photo Project: A powerful series capturing the pain of losing a child

The Empty Photo Project hopes to create a dialogue around child loss.
The Empty Photo Project: A powerful series capturing the pain of losing a child
The Empty Photo Project: A powerful series capturing the pain of losing a child
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In March 2017, Washington-based photographer and artist Susana Butterworth suffered a terrible loss. Her son, Warren, was stillborn.

Following the painful experience, Susana realised that people did not usually talk about what it felt like to lose a child.

To address this, she started the Empty Photo Project, where she photographs parents who have lost a child, in any form, by holding a mirror in front of their stomachs. She later edits the photographs giving the visual effect of a hole representing the emptiness that losing a child or children leaves behind in the lives of parents.

On her website, Susana writes, "After losing my son in March of 2017, I felt alone in my grieving. I thought that no one could understand what it was like losing a child. It seemed like all of the newfound hopes and dreams I had died right along with my son’s little body. The emptiness was heavy."

"Hoping to create a dialogue," she adds, "I started the Empty Photo Project. I want to approach child loss head on. I want to give it a face and show the community that those who’ve lost children are all around us, often without our knowing. It’s real. Let’s not shy away from talking about it."

People she photographs are also asked to provide a description of "what their 'empty' looks like and what it means personally.

"For Susana herself, the meaning of empty had evolved since she lost her son.

"'Empty' means so much more to me [now] than it did when I first started this project," she told “'Empty' means filling the void of loss with connection and people that I love. 'Empty' means remembering that my wounds of losing my son aren't covered up and forgotten; they are praised, loved, and worthy of showing. 'Empty' means that I have the knowledge and experience to be a caring and compassionate woman to others who know what empty feels like."


"Nothing will ever prepare you for the pain or emptiness of losing a child. A miscarriage is every hope and dream you had for your child being crushed in 6 words. It's crying and cursing in the doctor office. It's leaving your doctors office knowing that your little baby that you tried so hard to conceive is inside you and is no longer alive. Knowing your body failed you. Begging God to bring the life back into your child. Begging him to take you instead. It's him failing you. Its going to a close family member for support and hearing "It was probably retarded" a mere hour after hearing the news, hearing "it's not that big of a deal" while your child is still inside of your womb. It's three days later finally holding your tiny baby boy that you hoped and prayed for, lifeless in your hands. Its going to the emergency room because your bleeding out and going through hell, alone as your husband holds your daughter tight in the waiting room because you didn't want her to potentially watch you die. Its going home to take one last look at your baby's precious lips that look just like his daddy's before you burry him. It's you feeling like everything is all your fault. Watching your husband cry and shake in a way you have never seen before, not even when his father died. Feeling like your husband deserves a woman with a body that wouldn't put him through this pain. It's crying at three a.m because your arms are empty. It's losing it on your baby's due date. Its realizing you won't ever kiss his owies or wipe his tears. You will never sing and dance with him in the kitchen. You won't see him marry the love of his life. It's getting pregnant again and being filled with guilt and worry. It's constantly thinking of your child and wishing you could hold him and love on him. It's knowing that he's safe where he's at and he's well taken care of even if your not able to be the one taking care of him. It's praying to God to hold him tight for you. It's still telling him you love him. Its okay to weep. It's okay to loose it. I lost my child. Mommy and Daddy love you Malachi Eriksen" #emptyphotoproject #childloss #miscarriage #stillbirth #empty #lossofalovedone

A post shared by Sue Butterworth (@emptyphotoproject) on


"Losing my son, Gabriel, is the type of pain I would never wish upon anyone. The moment the doctor uttered the words “missed abortion”, I was angered. I didn’t have an abortion. I actually wanted my child. I didn’t appreciate his correct medical terminology. I felt empty as my son’s body lay inside of me but his heart was not beating. My D&C was scheduled for four days later to remove him from my womb. My body failed me. I would never hold his hand, watch him grow up, or hear his voice. Never is a long, long time. I paced back and forth yelling at God. I needed answers but I received none. They didn’t exist. They still don’t. Not only was my heart broken, but my soul was crushed. Breaking the news to friends and family was a different, new pain. I cannot tell you how many times I was told “everything happens for a reason” **insert eye roll** The worst comment came from a family member: “You just aren’t meant to be a mother yet. You aren’t ready.” So what is emptiness? It is seeing other pregnant women and their happy little lives. It is forcing a smile through unwanted sympathy. It is sitting down to eat a meal and losing your appetite. It is feeling guilty every time you crack a smile or laugh at someone’s joke. It is seeing other little boys Gabriel’s age and wondering who he would’ve been. It is knowing that, as a mother, I couldn’t fulfill my #1 job of protecting my child. It was not allowing myself to form a bond with my second baby during my pregnancy until she was born because I was afraid to lose her too. She is now 1.5 years old. I often find myself wondering if she met her big brother before coming to earth. He is her protector. Her angel. For that, I am grateful "

A post shared by Sue Butterworth (@emptyphotoproject) on


"Empty. Lost. Alone. Sterile. Barren. I found myself sitting in the cold and impersonal rooms of many doctor offices, where I completed countless tests and procedures all alone. All the examinations and practices attempting to leave me with a bundle of joy left me instead reeling in physical agony. I had nothing to show for my efforts but destroyed dreams and a broken heart. Full of discouragement and shame, I began to doubt my defective body. Time and time again I would walk in and wait, surrounded by women with growing round bellies. Each time I would walk out fighting back tears of despair. Tears caused either by the pain of the treatments or the crushed dreams left behind by an empty womb. The hope of adoption of a baby boy brought a breath of fresh air. After walking the journey of pregnancy and delivery with the young woman, I was once again left empty. The adoption fell through and I was left to walk the tiny baby boy I had named Kylar down the hall of the hospital. The baby boy I had fallen so deeply in love with would never know my love for him. I stumbled away broken and still very infertile. The infertility and pain went on for years until a questionable mass and extreme pain found me the recipient of a hysterectomy. No warning, just another dream shattering procedure. This one ended all my hopes that my miracle would ever come. My questions and doubts grew. I now discovered myself doubting if I had value as a woman. Would I be a “real” woman? Could I ever be a “real” mother? Am I enough? Will I be seen as a weak, broken and hollow shell? Now that I am “Forever Infertile. I felt this way until I surrender completely to my Lord. This is still the struggle I face, but I will continue to surrender daily. “After all my strength is gone. In you, I can be strong. I look to you. And when melodies are gone. In you, I hear a song.” (I Look To You by Selah) * Romans 12:12 Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer."

A post shared by Sue Butterworth (@emptyphotoproject) on


KNOX WAYLON ZOHN. You are perfect. The story of your life isn't. When pressed up against our own ideals, reality sometimes falls far short of our expectations and if we let what is in this world predicate our dreams, our lives will never be as beautiful as they could be. You taught me that. When I learned about you and your twin Decker, my imagination raced! I was so excited to think of coming home from my workday to see matching bookends in the front yard playing ball, or wrestling, hide and seek. I would imagine over and over how you two would hear my truck and come running for hugs, eyes lit up and yelling Dad! Then a little later I  learned that your little heart was going to need to be fixed but that it was a simple procedure and it would be ok. As a guy that fixes things for a living, it was hard not to want to do something about this, so I fixed you guys cribs and an IKEA light shade with clouds on it for your room.  It took a while being in there, thinking about you and your heart, and you guys playing ball, and it was harder than I thought it would be. Sometimes life is harder than you think it will be. You taught me that. You fought so hard and were so brave, And I'm glad I got to read you Winnie the Pooh, share my favorite song "Little Wing" by Stevie Ray Vaughan early in the morning before the hospital got filled with people, just you and I. Sometimes I have trouble focusing on just one thing and making it last and be pure and simple, but that time with you, I remember it so clearly that I can bring myself back to that room, how it smelled and everything in it. Sometimes minor details make all the difference. You taught me that. I try really hard to be a good father, I get plenty of practice with your brothers Decker and Avery, and your twin sisters Eleanor and Mable. We practice holding on to our dreams as much as we can and we try not to let the world and its disappointments get in the way. Whenever things get to be trying for me and for a second I want to break, I remember looking into your eyes, how strong you seemed, how perfect and it makes me more proud than ever that you are my son, and I am your Dad.

A post shared by Sue Butterworth (@emptyphotoproject) on


Today, August 15th, was Maddox’s due date. He came early on April 22nd, at only 23 weeks and 3 days. He was my 3rd baby, and 3rd child I’ve lost. It was discovered almost 10 years ago during the complications of my first pregnancy that I had a uterine abnormality, to which I was told I would more than likely never be able to carry a baby to term without corrective surgery. The first time I had the surgery, unbeknownst to me, it was done incorrectly. It wasn’t until 9 years later when we were ready to start a family that I learned my second baby too would not get a chance at life. After losing that child I would need a specialist to have surgery again. Maddox was our rainbow baby, I got pregnant 3 months after the second surgery. I cried in excitement when I found out I was having a boy, I had always wanted a little boy. I imagined his giggle, the hilarious things he would say as a toddler, and how much I would unconditionally love him more each day just as I had since the day I found out I was pregnant. But the complications came only 19 weeks into the pregnancy. My cervix was dilating and quickly, my water was leaking and I was put on strict bedrest for several weeks. Three days after being admitted into the hospital the contractions came on like a freight train and the medicine to stop them wasn’t working. He came into this world with the sound of a tiny cry that changed my life forever. He weighed only 1 ½ pounds. We thought because we made it past “Viability” of 23 weeks, that we were just in for a long NICU stay. Maddox showed great progress in his first week, we would hear from doctors and nurses how great he was doing. I even got to reach inside his isolate and hold his tiny hands and feet at times when his stats were stable. Our eyes were glued on him, he was our amazing miracle baby, so perfectly beautiful and strong. At 10 days old he opened his eyes, I have never felt love like I did when his gorgeous dark eyes gazed at mine, it was a feeling of complete, true happiness. Maddox’s health started to decline around 2 am on the 2nd of May, and at 2:15 pm I held my baby for the first and last time as he took his last breaths. (Continue reading in comments)

A post shared by Sue Butterworth (@emptyphotoproject) on

To view more of the artist's work, visit her Instagram page.

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