Photo sessions of seemingly perfect lives live all throughout the internet. Most people hire a photographer to bring out the love and happiness within their family and to create tangible proof to show the world or hang on their walls. This is a different story.
Some never would consider documenting such a story with an actual photographer. It’s absolutely heart-wrenching to watch a child battle something unthinkable and to see a family’s world suddenly pause. Yet, Kit’s story connected with me. I was elated to see how photographer, Allison Corrin French, is preserving this family’s story.
I couldn’t help but wonder how this documentary series of a child’s fight came together – when most people would pray for the family and leave it at that. When Allison shared her incredible videos of these sessions, I reached out to her for an interview.
MM: Give us a little background on this documentary series:
ACF: Sunday for the VanSickle family was smooth. MaryKate had noticed a few bruises on her spunky little one and when running her hands through tousled wayward curls and felt a bump at the base of her little head. Consulting nurse friends in conversation, they attributed it to simple childhood ailments, but suggested a checkup with a doctor, just in case. A mother’s intuition is unparalleled in wisdom, and they were in for an appointment the next morning. Things happened quickly from there.
Less than 24 hours after the initial appointment, Kit was diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia and underwent surgery to implant her port for the first dose of chemotherapy which she received promptly after the surgery, as well as a spinal tap for bone marrow samples. Of Kit’s blood cells, 86% are leukemia cells. Blood transfusions, hemoglobin count and steroids will be a part of this family’s daily vocabulary, their living, for a long time to come. Where her momma used to run her fingers through tangles of the days’ adventures, she’ll soon run her fingers over softer, smoother skin.
The monetary donations are essential as jobs will need to take a back seat as full-time caregiving will become the new normal and hospital visits become a part of the routine. The funds are coming in steadily, but there is more. A four year-old brother will need care, dinners will need to be on the table, a house will need cleaning. Naps will become a thing of the past as Kit works through the steroids and the subsequent physical and emotional battles. She’ll need to be kept peaceful, yet busy. The needs are many, but the community is greater.
MM: You were already friends with Kit’s family prior to these photo sessions. I can only imagine the emotions you must have felt when you heard the news of Kit’s diagnosis. Was the idea to document Kit and her family’s journey through this your idea or the family’s idea?
ACF: MaryKate and I are acquaintances from years ago. Starting when Kit was six months old, I began photographing their family and then she recently attended a photography workshop I teach. A few days after, I saw her at the workshop where she mentioned needing to get on my calendar again soon. Then, they posted the news on Facebook of their diagnosis. I couldn’t sleep that Monday night; tossing and turning, I had reached over to check the time on my phone, ending up mindlessly thumb swiping up through Facebook recaps of friends’ Mondays. They come and go, usually unwelcome, typically mundane. Just another day of back to work, back to school, back to the juggling act.
Except for my friend MaryKate.
February 9, 2015, will be etched forever in this family’s story. In the loneliness of night, the same MaryKate probably stayed awake through, I read what changed everything.
“There’s no easy way to describe the past 12 hours. We started our day like any other but by this evening we were sitting in a hospital room at Children’s Mercy with the news that our sweet baby girl Kit has leukemia. My heart is broken and shattered. So there it is. In the blink of an eye our whole lives changed. We started our morning like any other and ended it in a way I never imagined.”
MM: If it was your idea, can you please tell us what sparked the idea? What is the outcome you are looking to produce with these sessions? How did you approach the family and ask them if they would be willing to let you document such a scary time in their life?
ACF: I couldn’t sleep the rest of the night, I had chills over my whole body. I shed tears many times as I imagined the fears they must be facing. I messaged her in the morning hours to let her know the prayers I had been saying for her and mentioned the following,
“If there is anything I can do, I am yours. I know the needs will be many and please think of me for any of them, but I also wanted to volunteer my photography to you if there is anything you want to document as I truly believe this will be a story of hope and strength and healing. Any time you want pictures as a family or of Kit or anything, please, please think of me.”
She responded right away with,
“This has been such a shock and it still just feels so surreal. I’m so incredibly appreciative of your offer to help us document this journey. This is my sweet Kit’s story and I don’t ever want to forget how far she’s come and what a fighter she is after this is all said and done. She just finished her first dose of chemo and took it like a champ. For the next couple days we will be in the hospital as she gets her chemo so if you have any free time we would welcome you to come visit.”
MM: What has the reaction been from Kit’s family when they have seen the photos and incredible videos you’ve created?
ACF: The biggest blessing has been the community’s response. Within a few hours of the first video, the donations to her GoFundMe account doubled. Having the opportunity to share Kit’s strength and the family’s grace with a community who is responding so generously is one of the most moving experiences I’ve ever had.
MM: How has documenting a journey through an illness affected you as the photographer?
ACF: Personally, I’ve been changed. I’ve seen a family go from every day to one day at a time. I’ve watched friends and family come together, share the story and rally behind one mother, one father, one brother, all because of one baby girl. I’m learning by the day watching the faith of this family as they face every parents’ worst nightmare, having to go through the pain of their children fighting for their health.
MM: Let’s talk gear. What equipment have you been using for your photos and videography?
ACF: I’m a natural light photographer shooting with a Canon Mark III using a 35mm f/1.4 and 85mm f/1.2 lens.
MM: As an avid documentary photographer, you know these sessions take a bit of journalism on your part. Did you have questions for the Kit’s family ready as you were shooting the videos or did you simply let the conversation roll on its own?
ACF: The first video I made, I began recording as soon as I sat down to listen to my sweet friend tell about her experience. I only asked questions that I would have naturally in conversation and held the camera down on my lap as she talked to me. My goal was to simply allow her story to have a face, a voice attached and the technical side of things were secondary.
For the second video, we shot in their home and Kit was feeling terribly. We finished up the shoot and once again, we talked, as friends do, about the ups and downs of their struggle so far. Because of the sensitive nature of these videos and shoots, I didn’t want to exploit our time or take away from the authentic nature of their words by preparing questions ahead of time.
MM: Where can readers continue to follow along to Kit’s story?
MM: Tell us a little about yourself.
ACF: My name is Allison Corrin French. I’m a mother of four living in Kansas City with her best friend and love of her life, Chris. Passionate about soaking up the sweetness in the simple, I believe these moments are not just happenstance, coincidental interruptions of grander things, but, rather, the grandness itself, the very richness of life.
I find inspiration in creamed up coffee, a fresh morning’s first rays, barefoot muddy toes, the vibrant pages of children’s books, cozy fireplace blades and the “in betweens”. My photography embodies the story of life’s beauty best told through sunlight and honest connections, many of which I blog in stories of my own. My links are as follows:
Thank you, Allison, for answering these questions for all of our photographer readers and also to Kit & her family for showing us all the power of family unity.