Staring at life, staring at death (part two)

In the first part of this two-part blog entry, I shared my daughter’s perspective on our shared experience photographing kids with cancer and other life-threatening illnesses through an organization called, “Flashes of Hope.” Although I was in the exact same place as she was, working on the same project, I took away a different set of experiences from that very emotionally compelling day. Out experiences are divergent of course because of many reasons including the fact that she is a child and I am a parent. Our perspectives also diverged because of how we experienced the same people in very different ways. In the end, we came to the same belief, that family photos are an especially important part of the world of photography. The route we took to get there was a bit different.

“Flashes of Hope” was the organizer of the event. Their website can be found at: It is a good cause, premised on a simple idea, that photographs of sick kids (and their families) are important things to those same people, and they should be made for them. As I was making the portraits a number of things went through my mind.

The day that I was photographing, I had the usual number of technical issues that I do on almost all my portrait shoots. Seeing these families and understanding their situation simultaneously made me think two divergent thoughts; “stop worrying because it could be worse” and also, “work hard to do the best job you possibly can.”

Some of the families seemed to be on an emotional edge, inches away from exploding in tears of grief or rage. Others were very relaxed and enjoying the fine spring day as it was given to them. I could not help but wondering if those opposing attitudes affected the children and how they approached the inevitable challenges of their medical care.

In some cases it was indeed easy to spot the ill child, but in others it was much less clear. A surprising number of mothers talked to my wife, Annu, pouring out details of their situation, their children’s prognosis and narratives of how the illnesses had impacted others kids in their families. Each family seemed to deal with their situation differently. I hoped I would have faced my child’s illness as resolutely as some of the families that seemed more “together,” but I suspected I might not be that strong in a similar situation.

The parents, and especially the accompanying grandparents were in many ways the most help to me as a photographer. They most clearly understood the importance of what we were doing. To most of the kids, we were just a distraction but to the adults, and especially the grandparents, we were making one last record of their beloved, and soon to be departed, children and grandchildren.

Photographing them required that weird mix of dispassion and concentration I used to call on when I was photographing difficult situations, whether traffic accidents, funerals, families traumatized by pesticide-induced birth defects or the Mid-East conflict. In all of those situations, one side of my brain kept my concentration on the technical and compositional problems that I was facing. The other side of my brain struggled in those same situations (and while working with these sick kids) to keep my emotions at bay. Yes, I wanted to let in a little bit of my parental empathy in order to make the best portrait possible. At the same time, I knew that if I became too emotionally involved, I would be unable to adequately do my job as a photographer.

From many interviews with great photographers that I have read over the years, I knew that there was a so called “zone” they got into when working at their peak, whether photographing the Olympics, a war or even fashion models. Over the decades, I have spent my fair share of time in that zone too. But this situation was unusual in that I had to shift in and out of that zone constantly. One minute I was talking with a family trying to be empathetic, but not too much so in order not to lose my composure. The next moment I was expected to be the expert and accomplished photographer. In the end it was one of the harder shoots I have ever done because I had to toggle back and forth between roles so rapidly.

Photographing families traumatized by pesticide-induced birth defects or the Mid-East conflict turns out to be easier because in those situations I was only doing one job as I was getting into that “zone.” Up to that moment, photographing the first Gulf War in 1991 for Life Magazine had always seemed like one of the most challenging assignments I had ever had. That is because when the war started it looked like it might be World War Three and I was smack in the middle of it, risking life and limb. In the end, that war turned out to be a historical blip and little more. The imagery of that war has been relegated to archives and historians, to be trotted out occasionally in discussions on geopolitics and historical trends.

Though the audience for the work we made that day while working for “Flashes of Hope,” may be smaller, in the end the photographs we made are likely to be more meaningful to those families. Imagery of the first Gulf War ended up being very abundant and not particularly unique. Photographs of those children, who were soon to be gone, were not abundant and what we made was unique.

When I was young I aspired to cover at least one war, to see what it was like. Now that I am older, I am glad that I did that and glad that I now have something to compare it to. Photographing the kids at the “Flashes of Hope” event was very different than my other challenging projects such as photographing families traumatized by pesticide-induced birth defects or the Mid-East conflict. But I am a better person for having done both, which together remind me why I love being a photographer, and how different photographs are so important to different people.

4 responses to “Staring at life, staring at death (part two)”

  1. I was surprised you didn’t have comments for this series yet. I enjoyed reading it–and your other posts. Very nice. Thank you.

  2. its a lot on which to comment. I’m sort of speechless and any comment from me would pale in comparison to the original blog entry.

  3. Your post serves to remind me that photography is intrinsically personal and a photograph is often more than just a photograph.

    I’ve become aware that I have the selfish luxury of shooting simply for myself. I’ve agonized, over the years about critiques of my images and trying to determine how to shoot better, capture better images, be better skilled at doing things with those images using more photo tools than I need (lightroom, photoshop, myriad of plug-ins and filters, realitively overpowered mac pro) but the truth is at the end of the day the only person I have to please in the endeavor and in any form of final result, is me.

    In your case, almost all images are for either a project or a client and the images in some way serve that master. (your commercial photographer-world oldest profession metaphor). In the case of the photographs at the hole in the wall gang camp, it wasn’t “just professional” because the circumstances were heart wrenching and profound and touching.

    In your dual roles as technical and reasonably dispassionate “photographer” and the “person” behind the camera interacting with the kids and their families the resulting images became much more personal because you know they will be a chronicle and a cherished memory for the families of the children who pass away in the next few months or years.

  4. Very interesting and personal. I wonder though, how you could move in and out of the (psychological) zone. To me, being immersed in “the zone” and leaving it, are out of one’s control.
    If you find the time and have not already seen it, you may be interested in the book “Flow” by (get this name!) Csikszentmihalyi.

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