Staring at life, staring at death (part one)

As an art photographer I like to think of my photographs as creative interpretations of an idea or experience I have had. As a photojournalist, I hope that my images work as narratives of an event or issue that I think others should know about. I have recently been considering some other particularly compelling ways to think about the photographs that we photographers make.

By way of background, keep in mind that, at least for me, blog entries are often the end result of a lot of thinking, some note taking and an event or two that coalesces these formless elements and ideas into an actual blog entry. One such triggering event happened within the last year when a friend, living in Santa Barbara, California updated me (and all her friends) in a bulk e-mail about the wildfires there. She wrote that the fires were particularly bad. The critical part of the e-mail that she sent was the fact she and her daughter were evacuated and fine. The only other information she shared, besides news on the fire’s destruction, was that the family photos were safely with them. In the end nothing happened to their home, thankfully, but many others were not so lucky.

That got me thinking about what I would take during an evacuation similar to the one that my friend faced. My family photos would of course be first. We all know and (ideally, try to appreciate) the value of old photographs, as historical artifacts, family records, etc. Then my thinking went to the folks devastated by Hurricane Katrina, many of whom never even had the opportunity to gather the family photos for evacuation. To say that such a trauma is un-imaginable is both true and an understatement.

The last trigger event was when I was recently photographing families of kids with cancer (and other life-threatening illnesses) through an organization called, “Flashes of Hope.” “Flashes of Hope,” as they say on their web site:

“is a non-profit organization dedicated to creating powerful, uplifting portraits of children fighting cancer and other life-threatening illnesses in order change the way children they see themselves and raise money for pediatric cancer research.

The portraits, taken by award-winning photographers, help children feel better about their changing appearance by celebrating it. For families of terminally ill children, it’s especially important to have a portrait that preserves forever the beauty, grace and dignity of their child.”

That last part of the mission is where I came in. I was connected to “Flashes of Hope” through the American Society of Media Photographers. I was one of four photographers working one Saturday in Connecticut. What I found so compelling was summarized in the idea in that last sentence, about how my images would “preserve forever the beauty, grace and dignity of their child.” I read that on the site when I agreed to donate my services, but only when I was really photographing did I really appreciate that point.

We were actually photographing at the “Hole in the Wall Gang” camp built by the late actor, Paul Newman. There actually is an Association of Hole in the Wall Camps, which they describe as:

“…a global family of camps and programs that positively change the lives of children living with serious and life-threatening medical conditions. In northeastern Connecticut, surrounded by dense forests, is the first camp in the Hole in the Wall family of camps. Founded by Paul Newman and his close friends in 1988. This year alone, The Hole in the Wall Gang Camp will serve 16,000 youngsters with serious illnesses, all free of charge.

I brought my daughter and wife along to assist me that day. My daughter Adina, who is a high school junior, was so moved by her experience that she wrote an article for the New Jersey student teen literary magazine, NU. The piece below starts out as her narrative of the day, highlighting the experiences she had as well as her emotional starting and ending point on that that day:

“As Jews, we say a prayer for the sick called “misheh-beirach.” We pray for the health of our family, friends and Jews throughout the world. In various prayers, we think God for our own health and well-being. Many people are not fortunate to have their health, and some of them are young children. I had the chance to meet some of these children by volunteering with an organization called “Flashes of Hope.”

I woke up one foggy morning and drove with my dad and step mom to a summer camp founded and endowed by Paul Newman for children with cancer and other serious illnesses. All I knew about the day ahead of me was that I would serve as my dad’s photography assistant. We arrived at the camp, turning onto the camp’s property at a barely visible driveway. What we saw was like something out of a movie. It was a beautifully designed sleep away camp. The fog was just dissipating so we could see the trees, mountains, lake and a giant tree house in the distance.

The camp appeared deserted, but after some searching, we found the woman in charge of “Flashes of Hope,” the organization with which we were working that day. She told us to go to the dining hall and eat something if we wanted. Then, we were supposed to set up for the photo shoot.

We went into the dining hall and started talking to people. We learned that this camp is specifically for children with chronic and sometimes life-threatening diseases including leukemia and sickle cell anemia. During the summer, the kids come to camp for a week or two. It is very similar to a regular sleep away camp. In addition, the camp runs weekend programs for the ill kids and their families.

We absorbed all this information and then my dad, my step mom and I went to find a place for our photo shoot. We set up on the porch of the game room, looking out to a background of trees and mountains. Then we got our assignment: we were to take portraits of the children and their families – perhaps the some of the last photographs that would be taken of these very ill children.

The realization hit me like a ton of bricks: the kids we were about to photograph were likely to die in the next few months or years. Young children – kids half my age….we were there to take what their final portraits. After that realization, I became more determined than ever to help my dad and step mom as much as I possible could to make these the most amazing portraits ever.

Different families approached our set up, to have their pictures taken, some with as many as four kids. At first, I could not tell the sick kids from their healthy siblings. The children we photographed looked like happy, energetic, young kids who were there to have fun. Then, I started to look more closely. I saw kids that looked a little paler and a little thinner than their brothers and sisters. I gathered that these children were the reason the rest of the family was there that day. Even though these kids did look a little different, they seemed just as happy and energetic as the rest of them.

These kids amazed me. They were strong and happy, even if they had the threat of death nearby. These kids were able to have fun in the moment. Also, seeing these kids made me hopeful for their health and for progress to be made in medical research. My hope is that one day, these kids will not be the sick ones, that they will one day be cured.

Until that day, I think of the kids I met and the day I spent with them every time the “MisheBerach” is said. I hope for their recovery and not only do I think of the kids, but the strength of their family around them. I spent one day removed from the real world to take a few snap shots that can make all the difference to a family. Those pictures are a way to preserve the image and spirit of the child and family, which they love.”

In the next blog entry I will share my own take on the day’s experience.

Between working for “Flashes of Hope,” going into the “Hole in the Wall Gang” camp and giving my daughter a whole new experience, I would have to have been pretty thick not to be moved by the experience. I was indeed moved by the experience, but in different ways then I had expected. In the process, I was reminded again why I love being a photographer, and why photographs are so important to people.

3 responses to “Staring at life, staring at death (part one)”

  1. This is a wonderful cause and an insightful post. I am sure you are very proud to have raised such a compassionate, articulate and insightful daughter.

  2. Congratulations to your daughter on her thoughtfulness and clarity of writing. You’ve obviously raised her to be a sensitive and aware young woman. Teens can be so insensitive at times, and yet this shows how empathetic they can be, as well.

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