What were your initial thoughts when approaching the project?
Well, first and foremost this was pretty much a dream job. It’s not that often you get a brief with so few restrictions in terms of layout that it allows you to simply follow your instinct as a photographer. This is such a helpful approach when it comes to photographing children, to let them lead their own stories; even more so with stories as powerful as these.
What is it about telling children’s stories that means so much to you?
I’ve always been fascinated by themes of childhood imagination and development, which is why I find kids so interesting to shoot. It’s that lack of inhibition, that freedom of expression and curiosity that they have. What you get is something so unguarded and expressive. For me, it’s all about finding the wonder in their wonder.
How do you capture that sense of wonder in your shots?
For Cambridge Children’s it was simple. I was given pretty much free rein and the pictures were able to dictate where they would be used instead of vice versa. This allowed me to respond to the children naturally, with minimal direction, and really let them lead. What it comes down to then is making sure you’re right there, at the right time, to capture those moments. It’s all so fluid.
What did you set out to do?
We wanted to capture a real sense of each child — their story, their personality. It’s the idea of the whole, that nothing is separate from anything else, it’s all interconnected. Because ultimately that is what the project was all about, their lives and their futures.
It was about having no expectations and giving each child as much space as possible during the shoot. That way, they were more likely to feel comfortable and to be themselves – without me over-directing or interfering too much.
The style is reminiscent of the central idea that ‘the best hospital is no hospital’ don’t you agree?
Completely. The idea itself is amazing. Obviously, a lot of things have to happen in a medical setting, but where it’s possible to continue that support at home, in their everyday life, it makes perfect sense.
Every child will need something different of course. Acknowledging that is what makes this approach so refreshing.
How did you go about it?
It’s about capturing those little glimpses of each child’s story, the scars, the equipment, anything that could symbolise the colossal journey these children had been on. For anyone, this would have been incredibly hard, but when it comes to children, it’s mind-blowing. For them and their families.
And with the kids, there’s this huge contrast happening all the time. This sense of energy, a love for life, despite all the hardship.
Does your background in portrait photography come into play here?
It’s all influential, although my style has changed a lot in recent years, from a slower and more composed approach, which isn’t a thing that works so well when photographing kids in this way. That’s why a more reportage style makes sense here. You can’t always expect kids to be still, you need to become more fluid and roll with whatever’s happening.
Photographers such as John Spinks, Tierney Gearon, and Clare Richardson have influenced my style a lot. Clare Richardson’s Harlemville is one of my favourite photo books. It looks at children growing up in a Steiner community and how the philosophy encourages freedom of expression, allowing them to develop a wonderful sense of self-awareness and connection with their surroundings.
Do you have any standout favourites?
It’s impossible to say! Our first shoot with Max on the beach, first thing in the morning were pretty magical, the light was amazing and he was just fantastic. All the families were so open and welcoming, and there was a sense that they wanted to give something back to those who had helped their children. Every shoot was special in its own way, so it’s really hard to pick one out.
It wouldn’t be an interview without mentioning Covid, how was shooting during it?
It wasn’t so bad as we were able to be outside a lot of the time and keep a safe distance. Inside was a bit trickier, because with masks it’s all about the eyebrows isn’t it! We managed to make good connections with the families outside in the garden so they at least knew what we looked like properly before any indoor shots happened.
Usually, when you see photos of sick children, they are understandably sad. With these shots, there’s a lot of joy and hope on show.
Yes, there’s a definite feeling of ‘life’ throughout. With a lot of these children, there’s a sense of them being success stories: they’re the ones who have had treatment already or have well-established ongoing support, and so in that sense, they are happy tales.
But there was a sense of fragility that would show up now and then while we were shooting, and so it’s important to be sensitive to the families that don’t get to smile as much too. At one point, up on the hill, one little girl’s breathing apparatus became disconnected. It wasn’t for long, but just long enough to really snap you back into the reality of it all, and make you realise what her parents are experiencing too. A sharp reminder to be grateful and appreciate what you have.
Ultimately that’s the spirit of all of this, that treatment isn’t a momentary thing – it’s an ongoing part of people’s everyday life. The more integrated those two things can be the better.
Read the entire case study here, or check out Kitty Gale’s other work here.