Photovoice: a photography exhibit that fosters connections among teens with cancer
By Amy Naylor, Corporate Communications Intern
They say a picture is worth a thousand words...when the subject is teenagers living with cancer, it is no surprise words can fall short when trying to explain their journeys.
For seven weeks, five teenagers, all with varying cancer diagnoses, turned to photography as a way to visually represent what it means to be an adolescent going through cancer. Photovoice, a therapeutic support program at The Hospital for Sick Children (SickKids), combines photography with weekly group sessions so participants can express themselves and communicate their cancer journeys.
The seven week therapeutic group was run by Sonia Lucchetta and Wendy Shama, Social Workers in Haematology/Oncology. Every week, the group came together to discuss the photos they had taken based on a theme they chose together. Every week, they printed a couple of their favourite photos to show the group, which were used to generate discussion. Over the course of the group, they chose five themes – loss, gain, changes, hope and feelings – to set the direction for their photography.
“As social workers, we’re always looking for innovative therapies to meet the needs of our patients,” explained Shama. “We find that in a paediatric setting there can be numerous opportunities for younger children to engage with other children. We want to provide teenagers with a way to connect with other patients their own age who can understand the unique challenges of going through cancer as an adolescent.”
“Photovoice aims to empower participants through the use of photography and their own accompanying narratives as a way to better understand their lives and experiences and to explore opportunities for change that art and images can evoke,” said Lucchetta. “We are exceptionally grateful to the teens that participated in this group. We were moved by their sincerity, candour and genuine honesty each and every week.”
Photovoice culminated in an exhibit at SickKids during Childhood Cancer Awareness Month. The exhibit showcased the boys’ favourite photos and provided an opportunity for their families and members of the SickKids community to celebrate their work.
James, 19, addressed the group and explained the impact Photovoice had on his personal outlook, saying, “You can always try to explain to someone what you’re going through and they will usually do their best to understand. But it can be hard to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, and the feelings that come with having cancer can be particularly difficult for others to grasp. There is no simpler way to show these unseen realities than through a picture. Photovoice allowed us to do that.”
Visitors were then given the opportunity to view the photos and talk to the teens about the pictures on display. Each photo included a powerful narrative that the boys had presented when discussing their photos in the group sessions.
“My first instinct was to take pictures of everything in my life that had changed and I realized they weren’t all bad,” said James. “I learned how to play guitar at Camp Oochigeas after I was diagnosed. If it wasn’t for cancer I may never have learned to play. It’s easy to focus on the hard times that come along with cancer, but there is some good that can come out of it as well. Photovoice helped me see that.”
Learning to look on the bright side is something Ricky, 13, knows all too well according to his mother, Arlyn.
“On the one hand, he prays he will get better so I won’t be sad anymore,” explained Arlyn. “On the other hand, he says ‘Mom, there’s so much I’ve been able to do since I’ve have cancer.’ He’s had opportunities to do things he wouldn’t otherwise have been able to do. You have to make the best out of things and take it one day at a time.”
For these teens, taking it one day at a time included learning how to talk about having cancer with those outside the hospital.
“Talking about cancer can be awkward, especially with people who haven’t been through it” said Rayyan, 16. “They aren’t sure what to say. The pictures helped make it easier to talk about.”
These visual representations or shared experiences allowed the boys to connect to one another which made talking about living with cancer easier in the group sessions. As it became easier to talk about with each other, it also started to become easier to talk about with those not undergoing cancer treatments.
“I think I initially joined for the photography but ended up with friends,” said Alex, 17. “These are people who get it. With my school friends, I would make a joke about having cancer and they were never sure whether to laugh or say something nice. The group gave me a space where I could be ‘Cancer Alex’, which made being ‘Normal Alex’ easier outside the hospital.”
Aside from the connections formed and feelings expressed, for some of the boys Photovoice also proved to be a welcome distraction.
“The group gave me a project to focus on,” said Subhan, 17. “Cancer means a lot of waiting around for tests and sometimes appointments get delayed. It takes a lot of patience. That’s why I am so happy in this picture. We saw my tumour was shrinking.”
The combination of the participants’ photos and personal stories did what any great work of art sets out to do: It allowed the viewer to experience something novel and to go to a place they have never been. It became a lesson in perspective, and the teens had a lot to teach.
The Photovoice workshop is funded by the Garron Family Cancer Centre.