Darian Ryan: 2023 NILMDTS Digital Retouch Artist of the Year

Written by
Mackenzie Mahon

Each year Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep honors a variety of volunteers for their contributions to our cause and their embodiment of our four core values: Passionate Contribution, Prioritize People, Unyielding Integrity, and Continuous Growth. Today we’re excited to introduce you to South African volunteer Darian Ryan, who was selected by the Board of Directors as the NILMDTS Digital Retouch Artist of the Year. 

Darian Ryan first heard of Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep in 2020 through a birth photography organization. As a professional photographer who specializes in black and white photography herself, it seemed like a natural fit, but she was hesitant. Darian remembers wondering, “Do I have what it takes? Do I have the ability?” 

Darian knew how important these photos are, though. Prior to joining Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep, she had a friend finally fall pregnant after struggling to conceive. When the time came for delivery, Darian was traveling overseas, but instructed friends to message her when the baby arrived. Sadly, when Darian did hear from them, it was to share that her friend had lost her baby. “She had one photo,” Darian remarked. “I saw how much that photo meant to her, and when I came across NILMDTS, I thought, ‘If my friend had had a photographer come in to take photos for her, it would have made a world of difference. Maybe if I had been there, I could have taken photos. Every session I take now is in honor of her baby, Seth.” 

Eventually, Darian decided to apply to volunteer with NILMDTS as a Digital Retouch Artist (DRA). While she was originally worried about whether she had the ability to retouch these photos, Darian found that wasn’t the case. Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep Digital Retouch Artists go through an onboarding process to help them apply the skills they have to the specific needs of the babies NILMDTS serves, and Darian quickly jumped into the training. The first level of retouching was well within her reach, but as she started taking higher level requests, Darian started getting more challenged. “Lisa, my mentor, taught me what I needed to know,” Darian remarked. “I love learning. I think of where I started to where I am now, and I am so much better. My retouching skills have taken off and I’m really proud of that. Now when I’m doing my normal retouching, it seems super easy. You have a face full of acne? I can do that.” She also loves how flexible the role is, remarking that when she volunteers, “I’m in the comfort of my home. I can stop when I want, go get a cup of coffee, and come back. I can do as much or as little as I want. It’s totally up to me to do what I want, when I want, as I want, utilizing talent that I have. It’s a really great way for me to give back without any pressure.” 

If Darian’s retouching skills have taken off, it’s because of her sheer generosity in sharing her skills with others. Since becoming a Digital Retouch Artist in 2021, Darian has retouched photos for more than 465 families. Many of these families have made a personal impact on her. In one session Darian retouched, the notes mentioned that the mother was a professional photographer. “I felt like I connected with her because we’re both photographers,” Darian said. “Suddenly I was in her shoes, feeling her pain… Did she have her camera with her? Did she take any photos, or was it more painful? I really put myself in her shoes - not that you ever really can, but I started thinking of the session from a mom’s point of view. I just really wanted that mom to be pleased with my editing, since I know that it’s something she can do. I just really wanted to make sure that session was up to her standards, from one professional photographer to another.” 

Throughout our conversation, it was clear that Darian cares deeply about the families she serves and takes great pride in her work, especially when parents reach out after her photos are delivered. Darian remembered these kind thanks fondly, saying, “When I get those little love notes from the parents, it’s like, oh my gosh, I’m helping someone else in the healing process. Knowing there are people out there that I’m helping through my work and my talent, it makes me feel good. I’m not looking for a pat on the back, but just to know that I’m making a difference in the world. That’s my legacy. That’s what I’m proud of. As a professional photographer, it’s all about earning a living. My volunteer work… a lot of people don’t know who I am, and that’s okay with me. I know that I’m making a difference.” 

Darian’s service is making a difference in the world, and the babies she’s retouching are making a difference in her, too. “When I refer to my sessions,” Darian remarked, “I always refer to them as ‘my babies.’ People will ask what I’m doing, and I’ll say, ‘I’m working on my babies.’ Every session, they become mine in a sort of way.” Ultimately, that’s what she wants parents to know, too. Thinking about what she’d share with the babies’ parents, Darian gushed, “It was such an honor working on your session. It was such an honor for me to meet your baby. With every session I do, that’s a way of me meeting them, and them touching my heart. I hold them in my heart. We always want to leave an impact, and your little baby has made an impact on me, and made a difference in my life. 

“I just want families to know their babies are not just precious to them, they’re precious to me, too.”