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Carolyn Lewis

Visual Narratives: Children Using Photography and Personal Journals To DocumentTheir Lives With Cancer

       When children are diagnosed with cancer numerous choices are taken from them, often creating confusion and frustration. Their normal routines drastically change to include long hospital stays, weekly check-ups, medication with side effects, and unfamiliar medical people continually examining their bodies. Oftentimes these children find it difficult to participate in what for them were once commonplace activities. They may no longer – due to sickness, drastic body image changes, and/or doctors’ orders – be able to attend school, leaving them feeling lonely and isolated. Cancer becomes an uninvited part of these children’s lives, yet must be recognized.

This thesis project explored the impact for pediatric cancer patients of creating personal journals focused on self-documentary photography. I was interested in exploring whether phototherapy journals might help counteract the often disruptive effects of living with cancer by enabling the children to experience a renewed sense of order.  In this project each child was given his or her own camera, a tool that provided both expressive options and an experience of being in control. They documented images from their daily lives that reflected the emotions and issues they faced. The images conveyed stories only the children could tell. They then constructed personal visual journals, which became private holding spaces for their photographs and permanent records of their stories about life with cancer.

In order to assess the effects of this project on the children, information was gathered from the beginning of this thesis project until its completion. I observed the children’s behaviors, documented what they said during art therapy sessions, and witnessed their artwork.  The children’s photographs and books provided a clearer sense of how cancer affected each of their lives, how they coped with the illness, and the emotional issues with which they struggled. I reflected on and responded to this information with the medical team, in supervision, and ultimately with the child in order to foster the healing process. Presented in this thesis, along with my analysis of the project, are the children’s photographs and personal narratives—evidence of their realities and challenges during the time they had cancer.

          Carolyn Lewis earned a Bachelor of Science degree in psychology and a Bachelor of Arts degree in photography from Birmingham-Southern College, as well as a Professional Certificate Degree in photography from Rockport College/Maine Photographic Workshops.  While in the art therapy program at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, she gained clinical experience at Children’s Memorial Hospital working with children diagnosed with cancer.


Thesis Advisor: Catherine Moon, Assistant Professor, Art Therapy

Thesis Reader: Christopher James, Professor, Chair of Photography Department, The Art Institute of Boston at Lesley University

Second Reader: Jan Phillips, photographer and author




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