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Cherished Portraits program aims to bring parents of seriously ill children solace 

A portrait of 2-year-old Giovanni Turner taken through the Cherished Portraits program. Doctors diagnosed Giovanni with stage IV rhabdomyosarcoma, a soft tissue cancer that left an inoperable tumor near his pelvis. Photo by Sarah Nebel.

I recently came across this wonderful program via a heart-warming article in the Fall 2012 edition of The University of Iowa Spectator, shared with me by my coworker Jay Johnson, who is himself an alumnus of the school.

The article discusses the hardships faced by Kari Ohlenkamp, mother of Giovanni Turner (pictured left), who was diagnosed with stage IV rhabdomyosarcoma, a soft tissue cancer that left an inoperable tumor near his pelvis. Within the article, Ohlenkamp explains how grateful she is to have had such beautiful photos taken of her son, photos which capture "his young, positive spirit." Among the photos is a black and white portrait of Giovanni (left), which was a part of the Cherished Portraits photo exhibit that took place at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics. "I try not to cry about this," says Ohlenkamp, "because when I look at him he's not letting it affect him." "I was grateful they came and took the photos," she added, "because the future is so uncertain."   

Although the exhibit's final day was October 12th of this year, the inspiring work of the Cherished Portraits program continues. 


The Cherished Portraits program at UI Children's Hospital provides private, professional portrait sessions for families experiencing stillbirth or newborn death, infants and children with life-threatening illnesses, children who are facing the end of their lives, or at the time of an unexpected death. The photos are offered on-site by professional photographers, and are given to families at no cost on a disc to serve as a testament to the life that may be brief.

The program is comprised of five professional photographers in the Iowa area city who volunteer their time and expertise to the cause. Each of them acknowledges that, although the work is ultimately rewarding, it is also extremely difficult. “If you allow yourself to feel what the mother and the family are feeling, the emotions really take over,” says Laura Eckert, one of the photographers. “As professional photographers we are often meeting clients on the best day of their lives. We shoot their engagement sessions, their weddings, and their newborn babies,” she says. “But when I walk into a Cherished Portraits session, I’m meeting someone on the worst day of their life. It is almost indescribable to have the opportunity to be a blessing to others in the midst of their deepest pain, and as they heal and grieve down the road."

Although it takes a great deal of strength and courage to do what these photographers do, they know it is only a fraction of what the families must show in order to allow their children to be photographed in such a vulnerable state. Yet time and time again the families opt to take part because they understand that a single photograph can provide them with a lasting memory of their child as he or she was. 

“For those who have been through a loss, they can really connect with the gift of that photograph, that memory,” says Jean Reed, director of Volunteer Services for UI Hospitals and Clinics. “A lot of times people can’t remember not only the details of the child but also the emotions they go through on that day. These photographs help them recapture some of that and hold onto it.”

Here at NYIP we teach about the power and importance of photography and perhaps nowhere is there a better and more acute example of this inherent power as in the work of the Cherished Portraits program. We can only hope that other hospitals will follow the UI Children's Hospital's example in the future and implement this life-changing program. Bravo!  

Hands take the form of a heart around the feet of Grace Rosauer in this Cherished Portrait image. Photo by Jaimy Ellis.

To learn more, read the article: A Life's Lasting Image


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