In the photo, 8-year-old Griffin Dahmen—dressed in Spiderman pajamas—brushes his teeth in a hospital bathroom.
“It seems really super-simple,” Jill Dahmen, Griffin’s mom, explained on Monday night. “But in the hospital, it’s not that simple. Griffin is done by the end of the day. He’s done being poked with needles, he’s done with medicine. He’s capped out. At home, it’s a non-issue. We tell him to brush his teeth. But in the hospital, there’s that part of you that says ‘Oh, but he’s in the hospital. Oh, but he has cancer.’ You just want to let him get away with whatever he wants.”
These moments, both small and large, are at the center of a new photography exhibit that opened on Tuesday, Feb. 16, at the Wilf Family Center in University of Minnesota Masonic Children’s Hospital. The Dahmens, whose son Griffin was treated at Masonic Children’s Hospital for Ewing sarcoma, are one of six families whose photos were on display. The exhibit is no longer available at the hospital, though organizers hope to have it installed in another location.
The exhibit, entitled “Perspectives: A Visual Journey of Patients and Families from University of Minnesota Masonic Children’s Hospital,” was the product of a collaboration between local photographer Jim Bovin, the University of Minnesota Center for Spirituality and Healing, University of Minnesota Masonic Children’s Hospital Child-Family Life Services and Integrative Health and Wellbeing.
A generous donation from the Margaret Hagen Smaby Fund for Innovation in Arts and Healing enabled the project.
In 2015, Bovin provided cameras and photography training to six families with children experiencing a severe or chronic illness. He then asked the families to document nine months of their healthcare journey at University of Minnesota Masonic Children’s Hospital.
The families shot more than 7,000 photos during the project. A few of those photos, chosen by Bovin and each of the families, are now on display. The families took photos in the operating room, during dressing changes, private moments and painful procedures. They often took joyful selfies. The patients, their siblings and parents, were all able to express themselves and their views through the camera lens during the hospital journey.
“It was a great honor to do this with the families,” Bovin said during the opening reception for the gallery. “They poured their hearts into this. I told them, ‘Do not be afraid to take the tough photograph.’ There are times when you just want to put the camera down and run away. But they did not do it.”
The photography project was a creative outlet that facilitated healing for the families involved,” said Melissa Turgeon, a dually certified child life specialist and art therapist who worked with Bovin to organize the initiative.
“Photography is an opportunity to wrestle with the truth, and perhaps capture it in a moment, and to never see it the same way again,” Turgeon said. “The importance of arts in healthcare is that it’s just not important—it’s crucial to tell the story and give the perspective. It may release unimaginable pain, even if it’s just for a few moments.”
“The picture I chose is a shot of our family snuggling with Pete the Cat, who is my son Anton’s favorite character in a book. My husband is reading him a Pete the Cat book. It has extra significance because are two things he really treasured and really loved. It’s just a very special moment that we got to spend with him before he passed away.”
“When we first came in, Grace had a really hard time with the vital tests. Grace has been here for four months now, and she’s finally started to play with some of the medical equipment. I just worry how much she understands, and how much she’s going to remember. It’s important for her to be able to understand the different tools, and know they’re not scary.
“So in that picture, we’re just standing in the bathroom and brushing our teeth. It seems really super-simple. But in the hospital, it’s not that simple. Griffin is done by the end of the day. He’s done being poked with needles, he’s done with medicine. At home, it’s a non-issue. But in the hospital, there’s that part of you that says ‘Oh, but he’s in the hospital. Oh, but he has cancer.’ You just want to let him get away with whatever he wants."
“This is a photo of a picture I drew. It’s the pancreatic ribbon within a heart. It basically explains the love and support I had. The angel wings and halo represent my grandpa. He was really special to me, and he died of pancreatic cancer, so there’s a connection to my entire experience with pancreatitis.”
“This is a photo of my daughter Taytem going under anesthesia for one of her many operations. It shows the anesthesiologist and two nurses putting her to sleep. They are so gentle and caring with these children. When I took this photo, it was so hard to just step back and watch her cry as they put the mask over her face. But this is the real life of children with an illness.