PhotoSensitive
CONTRIBUTORS
Precious Time        

After the success of It's In Their Eyes, everyone was keen to do another project. Generating ideas was Andrew's strong suit and Peter says his job was to pull back the reins on the racehorse: Andrew was irrepressible. "He was always ahead of the rest of us, full of ideas, boundless energy - a whirling dervish of creativity - and we ended up at the Hospital for Sick Children. Andrew had young children of his own and I think it spoke to him."

Andrew was on an assignment with the Toronto Star and met with the hospital's director of public affairs, Claudia Anderson. He spoke about his vision for a PhotoSensitive exhibition for Sick Kids. But when he mentioned he wanted 24-hour access, she said that would be impossible. There were privacy issues and photographing sick children at their most vulnerable? She doubted anyone would give the green light. But she agreed to take Andrew's proposal to the board of directors and a few weeks later, she delivered the good news: they had access.

Dianne Lister was the director of the Sick Kids Foundation at the time.

"I was shown examples of pictures Andrew had taken and I knew these were the people we could trust. We gave them 24-hour access, for weeks at a time. They each had one child and his or her family to follow.

"Were the photographs powerful? You bet. They let people who've never been inside our doors with their own sick child see what we do. This experience opened the door for other media, too. We eventually let TV cameras in, and that was all because of the success with PhotoSensitive. The human interplay, the black-and-white photography, the images. It took our breath away, and the reaction from the parents was something else. Families were almost grateful that these intense, personal moments were captured. When you're living it, you don't take pictures. These photos were a gift on so many levels.

"We ended up producing a beautiful coffee-table book to recognize donors - to say thank you to people who give money to the hospital - and to give to visiting doctors who come to learn and observe. It honoured our children and their families, and the staff, from the support workers who keep the place running - captured in Yuri Doric's great pictures - to the doctors and nurses," said Dianne.

As editor, Peter Robertson watched all the photos coming in, and noticed a change in the group. "This assignment really brought everyone together. It changed us from a band of individuals into a team. We were all watching these little kids who were so sick and so brave - some were going to die - and we were all really feeling the people. Peter Bregg ended up paying for medicine for one little boy once he was sent home. It was beyond click, click, click, I took your picture. For me, personally, Sick Kids - more than anything else - cemented PhotoSensitive for me. This was worth doing!"

For Andrew Stawicki, the 24-hour access was key. "We saw everyone as their real selves. I didn't take pictures of 'Mommy with her hair brushed, smiling for the camera.' Or 'Daddy relaxed and reading a fairy tale.' We caught them half asleep, rumpled, watching their children, exhausted, worried, being parents of sick children. I followed Cassandra. She was a beautiful three-year-old little girl waiting for heart surgery, and then going through heart surgery. Then, after just one week, I spot her laughing, hopping down the stairs, full of joy. That changes you. That changes you!"

The photographers weren't the only ones changed, moved to action. When the Precious Time exhibit was displayed in downtown Toronto, a Calgary businessman stopped long enough to react. He wrote a cheque to Sick Kids for $100,000. A tradition that had started with It's In Their Eyes continued: people spontaneously writing cheques in reaction to something they saw - and felt - in the PhotoSensitive photographs.

The power of the photos

One woman who watched Precious Time come together, from the inside, was Mary Jo Haddad. Back then, she was a nurse, running the critical care unit. Today, she's the president and CEO of Sick Kids Hospital.

"Those PhotoSensitive pictures reflected our work back to us in a very real and meaningful way. I remember being in the middle of it all, doing a procedure or consoling a child, and there would be one of the photographers, gently capturing the moment. Moments of humanity and emotion. Compassion. Joy. Pain. Fear. And if you look carefully, you will also see grief, anxiety. The rawness makes it real for all who look at those faces.

"I remember everyone was talking about how incredible the power of those photographs was - everyone wanted a copy of the book! To know that outside our doors, people might understand what goes on inside? That was such a gift, from them, to us," said Mary.

Publishing support along with early mentorship

As Peter Robertson wryly observed, "First we got the photographers, then the sponsors, then the printer, then the projects … but then, aha! We needed to get the photos published - no point taking these incredible pictures and not having them seen!"

In the early days, the best home for the photos, aside from the public exhibits, was often in the national newspapers, but sometimes it was a hard sell. Who wants to run pictures of the homeless next to ads featuring holidays in Cancun?

John Honderich, who was on staff at the Toronto Star for twenty-eight years and publisher for ten of those, says he seldom worried about that. From day one, he felt Andrew Stawicki was a man of extraordinary ideas and he wanted to help.

"I felt my role was to nurture Andrew, be a sounding board, occasionally temper his enthusiasm and offer guidance. When he came to talk to me about PhotoSensitive I was intrigued. It was daring. There was nothing like it anywhere else. I wanted to help and I guess you could say I put some muscle behind my mentoring!

"We ran two-page spreads and approved special sections in the paper. I never found it difficult to maintain advertising and include their photos of the homeless. You just show sensitivity in where you place them in the newspaper. The pictures were - are - evocative. I love seeing spectacular photography and I go to every exhibit PhotoSensitive holds - it's on my calendar. There is something about the power and the majesty of black and white. It is the simplicity that compels you to pay attention.

"While many of the images and stories have stayed with me, what strikes me, more than anything, is the power of Andrew's passion. When he stands up at an exhibit opening and begins to talk, he makes you care. It's been twenty years, and the power is as great now as it ever has been. That's saying a great deal in this industry. The stories still need to be told and I don't know who tells them better than Andrew and his team. He is the cajoler who makes it happen and he won't take no for an answer, so it will keep marching on. As long as there is the passion, the stories are waiting to be captured and shared," said John.