Vanessa Falle takes photos of critically ill children.
And every time she does, the Yukon photographer makes a new best friend.
“I approach it like a play date,” said Falle.
“We play with dinosaurs, cars or we get out the fairy wings.”
But one little boy is in too much pain to play.
His family contacted Falle through Helping Hearts, a growing group of photographers who provide free photography sessions for families with children who are suffering a life-altering illness or disability.
Falle is the only Yukon photographer in the group.
She joined in February, not long after her best friend’s daughter was diagnosed with leukemia.
Falle’s best friend is a photographer too, and she recorded her daughter’s illness on film.
It is easy to get caught up in the exhaustion and drama of these situations, said Falle.
“But I want to give families a reason to stop and celebrate that their children are still growing in beautiful ways.”
Helping Hearts was inspired by a US-based group of photographers who teamed up to offer free services to families whose children weren’t coming back from the hospital.
The Canadian version is a bit more hopeful, also offering free sessions to families and children facing permanent illnesses or disabilities.
The little boy Falle is waiting to shoot is in chronic pain.
He will be for the rest of his life, she said.
Falle told the boy’s mother that if he wakes up and is having a good day to call and Falle will drop everything.
But good days for the little boy are rare.
“I’ve been waiting awhile,” she said.
Falle has been with Helping Hearts for just over two months and already has five clients.
“I am one of the busiest photographers outside of Toronto,” she said.
One little girl, Stella Maris, was about to leave for Vancouver for an MRI.
The doctors feared a brain tumour.
The family appealed to Helping Hearts and Falle came to photograph Stella.
“The photo shoot brought the family so much joy it got them through that horrible anticipation of what lay on the other side of the test,” said Falle.
And this story has a happy ending.
Stella has Horner’s Syndrome, a rare sympathetic nervous system condition that caused one of her eyelids to droop.
There was no brain tumour.
Falle hasn’t had to fly to a Vancouver hospital to do a final photo session for any of her clients yet.
But she’s expecting it.
And she’s looking for corporate sponsorship, especially from companies like Air North, so she won’t have to turn down any requests because of costs.
Falle isn’t sure how she will react when she gets that first fatal call.
She wasn’t sure what would happen when she went to shoot Allison Potvin last year, either.
The Potvins had scheduled a photo shoot with Falle, to capture Allison’s pregnant belly.
But before Falle got there, Michael Potvin drowned in the Mayo River while on duty with the RCMP.
Falle immediately gave the young widow her money back.
Then, she made her an offer: she was still willing to come photograph Allison and her belly, and she’d do it for free.
“I didn’t want her to regret not having photos of this later in life,” said Falle.
Falle didn’t know what to expect.
“That was the scariest part,” she said.
The session was a success.
“There were some tears,” said Falle.
“But there was also lots of laughter.”
One of the photos captured Allison sitting in a chair with her big belly, holding a picture of her late husband.
“It’s that stuff – that’s why I do it,” said Falle.
Falle started taking pictures when her own kids were small.
But she didn’t pursue it as a profession until her kids were in school.
“I missed taking photos and started to learn all about the manual functions on my camera,” she said.
After taking photos of friends’ children, Falle “just jumped into it,” seeing her first maternity client in December 2009.
I was “a testing of the waters,” she said.
Falle’s been “darn busy” ever since.
But she manages to make time for Helping Hearts.
“I am always excited to meet the kids,” said Falle.
“Their stories are so inspiring and they teach us so much about what’s important.”
The children Falle photographs know all about “living in the moment,” she said.
“They take every moment and max it out, because they don’t know what tomorrow will bring.”
These are not easy photo shoots.
“I can only imagine how scary it is,” dealing with a child with a critical illness or disability, said Falle.
“How taxing it is and how powerless you would feel ….
“I can’t take away a child’s sickness, but I can give them this gift – something to celebrate,” she said.
“And when you look at these photos, you don’t see the illness.
“You see the sparkle and magic of childhood in their eyes.
“Kids aren’t supposed to die,” she said.
To learn more about Helping Hearts go to http://helping-hearts.ca/.
Falle is also exhibiting her photography at the Kids Swapmeet at Whitehorse Elementary on Saturday.
To see Falle’s work online visit http://vanessafallephotography.blogspot.com/.
Contact Genesee Keevil at