In 2012 Helen and Douglas House – the world’s first hospice and respice for children – celebrated its 30th year. A central part of the celebrations was the photography exhibition We Are Thirty, presenting thirty portraits of thirty of the children and young adults who visit Helen and Douglas House. I was one of the three photographers commissioned to produce these portraits and it was an honour.
One of the thirty was Ethan, a seventeen-year-old boy. When I spoke to his mother Jenny in preparation for the portrait session, I asked her what kind of image she most hoped for. She said, ‘For me, the really special moments with Ethan are when he and I are sitting together on his bed and I sing to him. He leans in to me and puts his hand on my throat so that he can feel my voice as I sing’. I was captivated by the intimacy of the scene that Jenny had described so we agreed we would try to capture it during the session.
It was an incredible experience photographing Ethan and Jenny together – they were relaxed and natural with me, and their connection as mother and son was very moving and inspiring. After an hour and a half of photography I left their house exhilarated because I knew I had some special images to share with them.
Here is the image that both Jenny and I chose as our favourite from the session, and it was the one exhibited in the show.
In addition to the evident connection between Ethan and Jenny, I love this photograph for its strong shapes – the V shape in Ethan’s hand is echoed in his cheekbones, in the upside down V of his neck, and in Jenny’s necklace. That is combined with the flow across the image created by Jenny’s hair sweeping in towards Ethan, and his own hair sweeping out and up.
On first seeing this photograph Jenny wrote to me, “I cannot believe that you have been able to so clearly capture how I feel about Ethan and how I believe Ethan feels about me…Have you ever heard people ask what they would rescue from a house fire? After the people (and dog!) it would be this photo.”
When interviewed about the portrait by Helen and Douglas House for the exhibition, she said, “I’m very proud to have a picture of my boy looking so beautiful; so alive and so dynamic. There’s an intimacy in the photograph that people wouldn’t get if they saw Ethan in his wheelchair unable to speak and clearly so disabled. The photograph really shows who he is – I’ll keep it forever.”
These words are the greatest reward for a portrait photographer. Thank you, Ethan and Jenny, for the privilege.