For Westchester photographer Zsuzsi Steiner, taking photos is a way to keep memories alive
By Shanee Edwards
Westchester resident Zsuzsi Steiner has been photographing local families for over six years and her vivid photos of local people and places have also brought the pages of The Argonaut and our sister publication Playa Vista Direct to life for the last three. Charming and upbeat, she is known for her ability to make even the most reluctant subjects have an enjoyable experience in front of her camera. When asked what led her to become a professional family photographer, she shared her moving story.
In 2009 Steiner and her husband Tim were expecting their first child, a son they would call Zachary. Excited about starting a family and wanting to create lasting memories, Zsuzsi decided to brush up on her photography skills. She had always enjoyed taking photos, but after Tim gifted her a new DSLR camera, she took classes at Santa Monica College and Otis College of Art & Design to help get the most out of the digital technology and further her skills.
Sadly, what was supposed to be a happy event turned to tragedy. During her 39th week of pregnancy, Zsuzsi experienced preeclampsia and HELLP syndrome, two medical disorders that cause complications for both mother and child during birth. “Just two days after being born,” says Zsuzsi, “Zachary passed away. I almost passed away as well.”
Her first time actually seeing Zachary was just before the doctors were to take him off the ventilator. As she met her dying son, she knew she must take photos of him – to have something by which she could remember the peaceful soul who was denied a chance to thrive. A friend brought a camera to the hospital and Zsuzsi mustered up the fortitude to photograph Zachary.
“Those pictures are truly what I have of my son. I can hold those pictures and look at them and I can say to myself, ‘He really existed!’ As time goes by, unfortunately, memories fade but pictures don’t fade,” Zsuzsi says.
As she was grieving the loss of her son, she found an organization called Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep, a group of professional photographers who go to hospitals and photograph babies who have already passed away or are likely to pass away due to complications.
“My experience motivated me to become a photographer for Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep. It helped me get through my grief because I was able to focus on the skills, I needed to be a good photographer, understand light, all those things,” Zsuzsi says. She also saw it as a way to honor the boy she lost.
She was accepted as a professional photographer for Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep after giving herself a 10-year timeframe not only to be skilled enough, but also be emotionally ready.
“I ended up doing one of these shoots for baby Mason, who was born alive but by the time I got to the hospital he had passed away,” says Zsuzsi. “To be there as a photographer for that family was life-changing and amazing. It was very special. And I held it together.”
As she edited the photos of Mason, something inside her shifted, emotionally. “I realized I didn’t need to take photos of families in a similar situation to keep Zachary’s memory alive.”
Instead of continuing on with the organization, she started her own photography business with an emphasis on family portraits.
Since the loss of Zachary, Zsuzsi and Tim have had two sons, Evan, 9, and Jack, 6. Both are healthy and thriving.
“The experience really empowered me and I’m still giving great memories that will not fade for other families,” she says.
By making a few adjustments to the way she works, Zsuzsi’s photography business has been going strong despite COVID-19. She offers this advice for other small business owners: “Think outside the box. Doing business as it was pre-COVID just isn’t going to work in these times. I adapted by doing porch portraits for people to document this time with their families. I’m also encouraging beach sessions. It’s important to focus on what you can do, not on what you can’t do.”
For more info, visit zsuzsiphotography.com.