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Focus on Strength

Photos capture courage of young survivors

By Jason Santerre

World Meningitis Day falls on April 24 this year. Anne Geddes, world-renowned photographer, philanthropist and mother of two, hopes we circle that day on our calendars and focus on one particularly savage strain: meningococcal disease. According to the Confederation of Meningitis Organizations, over 250 young Canadians are affected every year. Although meningococcal is rare, its unpredictable nature makes it particularly nefarious: It hits suddenly. It can lead to death within 48 hours of the first sign of symptoms — fever, vomiting, headache, stiffness — that are all too similar to those of the common flu. And even with quick action, 10 to 14 percent of patients die while one in five survivors suffer life-long neurological disabilities, hearing loss or the amputation of limbs. “When my two girls were quite young, there was an outbreak of meningococcal disease within our community,” says Anne of the Australian town where her children were born. “A girl of 18 months eventually lost a limb to the disease. I remember her mother was on the news. She was so generous with her time, her story. I took inspiration from that.”

Indeed, inspiration and compassion are both huge parts of Anne’s life as an artist. These traits came together in her latest major photography project: Protecting Our Tomorrows: Portraits of Meningococcal Disease. Anne photographed 15 young survivors, ranging in age from nine months to 25 years, from various countries and cultures.

“This project says everything about me as a photographer and why I do what I do,” she says. “To unify the series, I referenced the symbolism of a bird’s nest in each image,” said Anne in a statement. “To me, a beautiful bird’s nest, and the ingredients used in its building represent love, nurturing, family, protection, hope and, most importantly, a deceptive strength.”

That kind of inner strength is on full display in each portrait of these young people, whether through a simple gesture, an orchestrated pose or the way a child looks into the camera lens and ostensibly into the viewer’s eyes. Needless to say, the project proved difficult on an emotional level.

“I didn’t know how the children would react at first, and I didn’t know how I would react,” says Anne, adding that she finds that joy can hide in the most unexpected places. “Children are children, after all. They can adapt to even the most tumultuous and terrible circumstances. And through this project, I think they realized that they have an opportunity to do some good and shed light on a disease that affected them and their families. They acknowledge the fact that, although what happened to them was terrible, some good will come out of it. They’re so very stoic, these kids, and they never quit on me. So my job was to convey a sense of compassion while capturing that strength in each one of them.”

One model in particular, 19-year-old Kate from Canada, evoked Anne’s overall mandate. In a video documenting the photo shoot, Kate says she didn’t want anyone else to go through what she and her family experienced due to the disease. She said it’s important to know the facts about the disease and to get vaccinated, of course, but even though she has scars and they’re forever a part of who she is, they don’t define her. “The photo shoot helped build my confidence and made me feel really beautiful,” she says.

Mission accomplished, as far as Anne is concerned. “I’ve seen Kate since the project took place and she’s just blossomed in terms of confidence. She’s such a beautiful girl. And in this day and age when girls are dubbed too skinny or too fat, Kate helps to dispel notions of beauty.” Protecting Our Tomorrows: Portraits of Meningococcal Disease is sponsored by Novartis Vaccines and is available for free download at the iBook store.

Spring 2015, Vol 7 N°2

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