In the very beginning of my photography business, I decided that a way I could spice up boring sessions was to add props. I’m sure we’ve all been there… bubbles, balloons… even if it didn’t go with the wardrobe or family, I was going to use it anyway! Since I always like fluffy dresses, I bought a pack of dress-up things for girls to wear and went to town. However, I soon learned that the fluffy dresses weren’t really the parent’s taste. They didn’t match the feel of the rest of the photos, and those images didn’t sell. I sat back and thought about it for a while and decided to start doing entire sessions devoted to dress up things.
It was about this same time in 2007 that I heard of an eight-year-old girl named Sabina. She was fighting a malignant and inoperable brain stem tumor. I didn’t know anything about her condition other than that. I figured that she’d be undergoing chemotherapy for treatment, so I decided that I wanted to do a dress-up photo session for her before she lost all of her hair. I wanted to do something to encourage her and to help her feel pretty as she was going through such a tough time. I met with her and her mother on a chilly, overcast November day, got her all dressed up in the fancy clothes I had, and had about an hour photo session with her. It was a blast. She didn’t seem sick at all except that one eye turned inwards because of the pressure on her brain stem. She positively bounced through that session, and I walked away feeling like a million dollars. It didn’t even cross my mind that she was really all that sick. By February, the tumor was so big she couldn’t walk, and in May she was gone. I was utterly crushed. I’d met her only twice, but I felt like something wonderful and bright had been taken from the world. Even now, I get teary thinking about her.
So I decided a few years later to have a contest to nominate a deserving girl for a similar session. It originally started as just a one-time thing. The girl who won that year was Ava Jane. She was born with a heart defect and had a few other things going on. She and her two older sisters came out for a session with me and a trio of pink princess dresses, and it was an amazing session. Her sisters loved her to bits, and I ended up with some great photos. Again, it never even crossed my mind that she was in any real danger. Just a few months after that, Ava’s heart gave out suddenly and her family lost her, too. I sobbed all the way through her funeral because on stage next to the flowers was a canvas wrap I’d created for them of the three sisters dressed in princess dresses.
Both Sabina and Ava Jane’s mothers said to me, “You will never ever know how much those photos mean to our family.” After that, I knew that no matter how much I hurt for them, those girls needed to be happy for a while, and the families needed some peace through photos. Even if the girls weren’t terminal, the families have likely spent so much on medical bills that they haven’t had many photos done. So the Sabina and Ava Jane Memorial Princess sessions were born, and each year I accept nominations for deserving girls to win a big fairy photo session package. I offer sessions and print credits to each of the runner up girls also because I never know when something might happen to one, and it’s important to me that all of those girls have a chance to feel pretty.
This summer was my fourth year to hold these special sessions. Every year the nominations get harder to read, but I feel so lucky to meet the girls I do get to meet. I’ve learned so much about what changes these girls and their families, too. Three with brain tumors, three with gene deletions, one with heart defects, two with spina bifida, three with Down syndrome, one with Rett syndrome, three with Mitochondrial disease, one with Williams syndrome, one with Prader-willi syndrome, four with Leukemia, two with cystic fibrosis, five with epilepsy, two born prematurely, one born deaf, one born blind, one with diabetes, one with fetal alcohol syndrome, two pairs of abused sisters… I’ve cried more over these girls than I do my own problems, and I think it’s a good perspective to have.
I think giving back to the community that supports you is important, but each one of these families has touched my life in a way that I was lacking. It’s important to be reminded that the world is a big, big place, and everyone fights his or her own battles.