Y2K baby

(Tom Burton, 2000)

I’ve photographed babies. I’ve photographed people waiting to have babies and I photographed someone having a baby. Is this Millennium stuff over yet?

The Orlando Sentinel faced the Y2K question and had to plan our publishing cycle around the potential of a midnight shutdown at January 1, 2000. Like many other newspapers, we decided to run with early deadlines and have the January 1 edition off the presses before midnight. That way, we could secure the 123-year record of daily publication for the Sentinel. The last news pages would close by about 7 p.m. That would guarantee an edition but the editors decided to make history by publishing a second edition after midnight. The Sentinel had published special “extra” editions before, but this would the first time that home delivery subscribers would have two completely different editions thrown on their driveways.

In advance of the millennium edition, I had already photographed stories about couples who had due dates near January 1. Then I was assigned to a special project in connection with the January 1 millennium edition. The designers drew out folios for the top of each page that would feature a photograph of a baby wearing a Happy New Year or 2000 sash. There would be a different baby on each page and we would find a mixture of kids that reflected the diversity of our region.

Two things worked out for me. First, my boss took the job of calling and arranging the parents who would bring in their kids. Second, I was able to use the new Nikon D1 digital camera. The camera worked wonderfully and the digital camera allowed me to preview the photos instantly so I could let the parents go home when we had the one good photo. Three days, 23 babies, two non-stop criers, one drooler, three who wouldn’t keep the sashes on and plenty of cute pictures later, I was done.

When I came back from Christmas, I headed up our photography coverage of the first baby of the year story. Every photographer on staff was working and three of us were assigned to be waiting at the major hospitals. The plan was for a front-page photo of the first baby. Of course, the baby would have to come before our 2 a.m. deadline and we had decided we weren’t going to shoot c-sections.

I showed up at Florida Hospital about 10 p.m. There were two mothers in labor but there was also heavy action at the other hospitals. I was introduced to Richard and Leslie Gill who were in their room along with their 5 and 7 -year-old sons. It was New Years Eve and they were a few days before their due date and they couldn’t find a baby sitter.
I explained to the Gills what our story plans were and told them that my best scenario was to be in the room when the baby was delivered. Leslie said it was fine with here , as long as there were no signs of distress during the delivery. I told her that frankly, what she was doing was far more important than anything I was doing. Photos were a low priority.

(Tom Burton, 2000)

By 11:30 p.m. Dr. Fred Hoover, the OB doctor, was still sticking with his guess of a 1 a.m. to 3 a.m. delivery, but he added that Leslie was progressing nicely. I zipped downstairs to the emergency department to get a quick photo of staff with their party hats and was back at the Gills room at 11:45. The nurse came out in a rush and told me that Leslie was at plus two. Having been through three deliveries with my own children, I knew that meant the baby was moving down the birth canal.

At 11:55 p.m., Dr. Hoover came out of the Gill’s room. He gave a somewhat apologetic look and said he’d been wrong in his estimates. Mrs. Gill, it seems would be having a baby in the next five to ten minutes.

Because we had talked with the parents in the much calmer time a couple of hours earlier, the reporter and I were allowed in the room. They turned on the television as the ball fell in Times Square and outside the window, we could hear the fireworks being launched in downtown Orlando. Leslie began to push at 12:01 a.m. and at 12:03 a.m., Drew Nelson Gill made a grand entrance.
I’ve seen the birth of my three children and have photographed a couple others over the years, but it’s always a tremendous experience to witness a birth. I felt a tear working up in my left eye, but my right eye was glued to the viewfinder. I only stayed in the room for about ten minutes before I left for the office.

In the short hop to the Sentinel, I did the Snoopy happy dance while driving the car to 70’s funk classics. I was in the newspaper parking lot before the downtown fireworks were over.

We picked a front page photo showing young Drew being held by a delivery nurse while he screamed his head off. I had selected a particular angle so that the baby’s foot was mostly crossed over his genitals. No sense in making the first front page of the century too shocking.

Though I’ve been doing this for more than 20 years, it still amazes me that a baby can come into this world and within 12 hours be on the front page of more than 400,000 copies of the newspaper. It also amazes what a great job I have where I can be invited into people’s lives and have the chance to witness these most important and personal moments.

Tom Burton

published originally on January 6, 2000 on digitalstoryteller.com