“My heart burst wide open!”

January 12, 2015

Karen volunteering
Last year, I had the privilege of becoming a Lead Teaching Artist in Denver with the Pablove Shutterbugs photography program. I got the chance to work with some remarkable, young “budding artists,” helping them to develop their creative voice through the art of photography.

When I heard that the Pablove Shutterbugs program would be offered in Denver for the first time for children and teens living with cancer, I could not have been more excited! As a professional photographer, one with 15+ years under my belt spent previously as a pediatric nurse in children’s hospitals, I felt like the job of Teaching Artist was written specifically with me in mind.

There’s nothing like sharing my love of photography with others. When I pick up a camera and begin to shoot, all my cares melt away and only the moment I am experiencing becomes important and real. I couldn’t wait to give children the chance to experience this for themselves. I was chomping at the bit to work with the kids in the Shutterbugs program.

Denver ShutterbugsI kicked off the program by welcoming the students to their studio. While it might have looked like a simple classroom to an outsider, the students immediately tuned in to the fact that it was indeed a special place. They knew that our Saturday mornings together were going to be a time to learn about their cameras and about photography, all the while tapping into their creativity and becoming totally distracted from their daily lives, and from living with cancer.

In class each week, I was continually energized when a student rushed up to me to tell me about his or her week between classes—the images they captured and new techniques tried.

I loved hearing about the “mistakes” they made, only to discover what we called “happy accidents”…unexpected images that emerged when shooting in a different way than intended. With each of these little moments, I knew that they were appreciating their days more deeply as they became artists.

Shutterbugs in Stony BrookI’d be fooling myself if I said there was just one favorite moment when teaching the Pablove Shutterbugs program. The sum of all the little moments made the experience so much better than I had ever anticipated. Here are a few memories that will always stay with me:

If a student had to miss a class due to illness or unexpected hospitalization, we brought the class to them during the week and provide the class one-on-one. Once, when giving a lesson bedside, the student I was working with had to pause mid-lesson to receive a very painful chemotherapy treatment. As I was leaving, my heart burst wide open as I received the tightest hug from a nurse. With tears in her eyes, the nurse told me, “I don’t know what [the student] and you were doing, but I have never seen this patient so calm and relaxed during her chemo treatments.” Knowing that this program could have such a tangible and immediate impact is hard to describe!

At the end of our final class we give our students certificates of achievement—diplomas to recognize all of their hard work and creative energy. One of our students let me know that he had received many certificates in life, but none meant more to him than his completion of the Pablove Shutterbugs program because of his new love for photography.

As I look back on some of the pictures taken of our class I am continuously reminded that these kids are living with cancer—this is their reality. And though I only got to spend five weeks with them, I—and more importantly, they—put that reality on the back burner. For five weeks these kids were photographers, budding artists learning their craft and capturing images that are going to be framed and shared with the community in a gallery show.

I was told over and over again by parents that their child was not feeling up to par, but would do anything to not miss class on Saturday. This was their program!

Photographer_Wasim_Ahmad_Stony-BrookIt is apparent to me that these kids were incredibly grateful for the opportunity to hold a camera in their hand, to live in the moment, and to be able to take a new perspective on what they saw. They had the opportunity to make new friends and form a community that convened each week around an emerging passion, and all the while smiling, and laughing, and being glad we had this experience together.

In my line of work as a humanitarian photographer, I am always amazed that I enter each engagement in order to serve, yet end up receiving so much in return. This one was no different. I will be back this spring! How could I not?

Karen O’Hern, Pablove Shutterbugs Teaching Artist, Denver

Want to read more?
Read Dustin’s story – “A day in the life…cows included
Read Phillip’s story – “An anchor in a foggy landscape
Read Zuly and Antonella’s story – “Finding normal through a camera lens
Read Marcy’s story – “Today, I am happy

To Volunteer for The Pablove Foundation, sign up at pablove.org/volunteer

Photos by Jacqueline Griffen and Wasim Ahmad for The Pablove Foundation

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