From autumn 2015 to summer 2016, 30 adolescents and young adults took part in a photography project coordinated by Paola Gaggiotti (the artistic director of the Youth Project), during which three professional photographers (Alice Patriccioli, Veronica Garavaglia, and Donata Zanotti) taught them how to use a camera. They learned about exposure times and apertures, the rule of thirds, and backlighting; how to take high-quality pho- tographs with a smartphone; and how to edit their photos with computer software. The professionals gave the patients guidance on how to develop their own projects, helping them to express their feelings through their images, to capture their experiences through an enduring medium, to have fun with photography and tell their stories. As with other projects of the Youth Project, the choice of the topic was proposed by the patients themselves and they chose “Searching for Happiness” to be the theme.
Each patient developed their own personal experience, trying to explain through images what happiness meant to him/her at this particular time in their lives, and what gave them strength to fight their disease and keep smiling. The young patient’s search for happiness took two individual directions: one involved pursuing escape, not thinking about their disease, looking for happiness in the normalcy of daily life (a normalcy of which they had been robbed by the diagnosis and treatment of their cancer); the other focused on the disease as a starting point for revisiting the entire concept of happiness.
Many of the patients’ photographs tell of travels, friends, fast cars, nature, hugs with parents and grandparents. In the notes of their projects, the very words of the patients identify happiness “winter sunshine, hot coffee in the morning, Mum’s Sundays lasagna, the smell of chocolate, lying on the sofa listening to music”. In their notes, however, we also find phrases of remarkable awareness such as “happiness is having a life to live, being able to have a life to give meaning to”, “happiness is finding something good even in bad things”, “happiness is taking the stairs without having to hold on”, “happiness is finding the strength and courage to go a step further each day”, “happiness is managing not to waste even a moment.” And someone also wrote “to truly find happiness you must first lose it”.
Lorenzo (in treatment for ependymoma) took pictures from unusual perspectives. He explained: “My photographs are the metaphor of how I try to deal with the obstacles that life places before me, and how I seek happiness. I have learned how to try and overcome the obstacles from my worst limitation, the visual impairment caused by my disease. I literally had to learn to look at reality from different perspectives. Then I realized that I could transform this difficulty of mine into an opportunity. I look at reality from different angles, finding particular details that make it special and fascinating. Maybe the important thing is not to see the whole picture, but to look (and live) from as many alternative and original viewpoints as possible. This enables you to give a different interpretation to what you see, it lets you find something unique in every view, with the awareness that you can find happiness in it”.
Martina (treated for Ewing sarcoma) took melancholy pictures. “I wanted my photographs to illustrate what my search for happiness has been like in this period of my life. On the one hand, there have been the signs of how my body has changed (I lost my hair, lost weight, I no longer looked the same as before, neither in appearance nor in spirit). On the other hand, there has been my refusal to succumb to these changes, my determination to find beauty, smiling faces, and freedom despite everything. It has not been easy. All of us cancer patients are trying to find happiness. Sometimes it seems like a thing beyond our reach. But, thanks to the Youth Project, I’ve found an inner strength I didn’t think I had, and I’ve found it in all the other young people I’ve met here too. I have learned to find happiness in the normal little things of every day”.
The photography course culminated in an exhibition of 80 photos held the 12th of February 2017 at the prestigious Pavilion of Contemporary Art (Padiglione d’Arte Contemporanea) in Milan (RiScatti Searching for Happiness: realized thanks to Federica Balestrieri and Riscatti Onlus, con la collaborazione di Chiara Oggioni Tiepolo, the City of Milan and the sponsors Tod’s and Canson Infinity). As all other projects, also the photographic project was carried out thanks to the Associazione Bianca Garavaglia.
From the introduction of the exhibition catalog:
When the Youth Project was born, some time ago, we adults had well in mind what we wanted to build: a project dedicated to adolescent patients, which had a dual purpose, on the one hand improving clinical aspects, but also creating a place where children could rediscover the meaning of normal things in life – friends, sports, music, spaces, love – that feel that the disease wanted to take away from them. We certainly wanted to equip ourselves to best treat special patients who deserve special attention.
We thought it was unacceptable – and we still think it is – that adolescent patients with cancer were often in a middle ground between pediatric and adult oncology, they often ran the risk of having difficulties in getting treated, or they get there with a certain delay, resulting in them being less likely to be cured, for example, than children with the same disease.
We wanted to create a model of real multidisciplinary integration, also developed within a context of public health service, in this case virtuously inspired; a proposal of medical organization, but above all of thought, of a way of seeing the global care of sick children, relationships, communication; a cultural challenge.
We certainly believed we had things to teach these patients. Or to try and teach them. But -truly- it is not possible to teach how to endure anguish and fear – the fear of not making it, but perhaps even more so the fear of being alone.
And so we realized that if some of our claims were necessary and proper, the idea of teaching our patients something was at least superficial. It was they, the sick patients, who taught us. They taught us to open our ears – to listen, just listen to them – our eyes – to look at their smiles – our hearts – put ourselves at their disposal, with enthusiasm: “be enthusiastic, be creative, be the best you can”, the slogan of the professionals who invent the worlds of the Youth Project.
Our patients have taught us that there are wonderful stories to tell, here in the Youth Project, in this World where kids have cancer. And we just have to be there.
We understood that with slightly particular instruments – projects of creativity, art, colors, music written, played and sung together – we can try to bring beauty inside the hospital. Because when there is beauty, there is also hope. “Searching for happiness” was one of these creative journeys, one of these tools to tell about oneself and to create beauty. Thirty patients on the way. Together. To narrate their life in a few clicks. Telling with an image the beauty of “climbing the stairs without help” or that of “Mum’s Sunday lasagna”, telling the desire for freedom and the fear of losing, the strength of being together and the hands that become colorful. To tell smiles and to tell tears.
A project that lasted many months. Months thinking about a future that wasn’t just the day of discharge or the day of the white blood cell rise. A future to plan together.
Months, for us adults, in which to learn. For me: to learn how to be a man, walking side by side with a boy/girl – with many patients, to be honest. Which is very different from being a doctor who has to treat a patient with cancer. Shake a hand, be silent, seek lightheartedness, face heaviness, cry if needed, be angry when necessary. Telling little lies and big truths. Not giving up when you’d want to. Believe in the power of smiles. Make a mistake. Try again. Be cautious and impulsive. Be true.
The story of the photographic project Searching for Happiness is told in the prestigious scientific journal Journal of Clinical Oncology:
Ferrari A, Gaggiotti P, Silva M, Veneroni L, Magni C, Signoroni S, Casanova M, Luksch R, Terenziani M, Spreafico F, Meazza C, Clerici CA, Massimino M. In search for happiness. J Clin Oncol 35(19):2209-2212, 2017. doi: 10.1200/JCO.2017.72.8733.
Furthermore, the project is also taken up on:
Ferrari A, Marino S, Gaggiotti P, Garavaglia V, Silva M, Veneroni L, Massimino M. Shout in fury but smile at life: a portrait of an adolescent with cancer on the Youth Project in Milan. Pediatr Blood Cancer 64(11), 2017. doi: 10.1002/pbc.26611