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Freeze-Frame on Pediatric Cancer

Cancer survivors Jordan Waldenberger and Kayla Bardin.

Photographers have been using the camera to preserve moments in time since the medium was invented, but rarely as poignantly as in Snapshots of Strength, a photo project that ensures that families struggling with pediatric cancer will always have high quality images of their children, no matter what the outcome of treatment is.  

Once a month, Daniel Shapiro ’88 and a group of volunteers take over a conference room at the Penn State/Hershey Medical School, where Shapiro is chair of the humanities department and a professor of psychiatry. There, they create a studio and photograph four or five families. Sometimes they shoot at hospital events in which the families participate. Volunteers then work nights and weekends to get the photos edited, printed, matted, and framed.

In the last year, the group has taken more than 10,000 photos of children with cancer and their families, and has provided three large, framed photographs and a DVD of photos to 75 families—all free of charge.

Shapiro, whose research focuses on coping with medical crises, says the response from families has been overwhelmingly positive—they find the images “validating.” 

“You can see the bond and the struggle they've been through. There are times when the camera catches something I couldn't see in the moment. Sometimes it's playfulness, sometimes it's weariness, sometimes resilience. I'm in my 40s now, and not so easily moved, but the photos sometimes resonate deeply and that feels like home, like we're doing something right.”

The unfortunate truth, however, is that, for some families, these will be the last well-crafted images they have of their children. “In the last year we've had five deaths of children we've photographed. It's painful,” says Shapiro. “The families have shared that the photos have become more important to them after the deaths, and that's gratifying, but it's hard to ignore the painful truth apparent in this and a lot of clinical work—sometimes horrible things happen to good people…especially children.”

For Shapiro, who is himself a cancer survivor, it is especially meaningful that his own 16-year-old daughter, Alex, is among the volunteers. She not only shoots and edits photos, but she’s proven to be quite a natural when it comes to working with the families.

Both hope the photographs will go a long way in helping families cope with the loss of loved ones. Or, in the case of those whose children do get well, provide evidence of what they have endured…and survived.

—Elizabeth Randolph

Snapshots of Strength is a partnership between Shapiro, pediatrician Richard Hammer, and the Four Diamonds Fund at school’s Children's Hospital.

Photos, including slideshow images, by Rick Hammer, Alex Shapiro, and Dan Shapiro.