Picture This: Empowering craniofacial anomalies patients

Picture This! Craniofacial Anomalies ProgramChildren with craniofacial anomalies spend a great deal of time in their doctor’s office being evaluated and treated. Every visit involves having photographs taken. Not fun pictures. Not even school headshots. But pictures focused on their facial differences.

It’s what is sometimes called the “clinical gaze.” We are carefully examining their facial differences, focusing on them and working to help fix them. In a way, it can be depersonalizing even though my colleagues and I at the Craniofacial Anomalies Program work hard to connect with the children in ways other than their facial differences.

My colleagues and I wanted to do something to give the kids back the magic and fun that kids should feel with the idea of having their photos taken. I’d heard about a project where kids with craniofacial anomalies were paired with artists to have portraits painted, and was struck by how powerful it was for the children to have these immense portraits painted of them. We wanted to give our patients a taste of that experience, but also to give them the gift finding beauty – whatever that is to them – through their own lens.

From that idea, we created “Picture This!

This past May, we took nine patients, their parents and some tremendous professional photographers over to the Arb. The photographers took pictures of the kids focusing on them as children, capturing their energy and personalities. What a joy to see the kids have fun in front of the cameras. It is great to see them light up and be able to actually enjoy being photographed!

Then we flipped things around. We wanted to empower the kids to be behind the camera for a change.

Our team had rented great professional cameras for the kids to use. No point and shoots or phone cameras for this day. The professional photographers taught the kids how to use the cameras and how to frame a shot. They talked about looking for beauty in unexpected places. For some, that meant they took photos of trees, bugs and flowers, for many it involved pictures of moms, dads and siblings. For everyone, though, it was unique. The experience was very meaningful for everyone involved.

Yesterday, we unveiled the portraits of the kids and the photos the kids shot with a big celebration at Mott. The kids each had a chance to see their portraits displayed alongside one of the photographs they took, professionally printed in a large-scale format in a gallery setting. It was incredible to observe them seeing how special they are and how special their point of view is.

From November to January, the photographs will be on display in the gallery on Level 2 in the main lobby of the children’s hospital. After that, the exhibit will move to the arboretum. Long term, we hope it can be a traveling exhibit that can be displayed in local schools and libraries. Part of the mission of this project is to raise awareness and acceptance of kids with craniofacial differences. Having these beautiful photographs on display will help showcase that these children are more than their facial differences.

With the Picture This! initiative, we wanted to hand over the power to the kids. Let them be the ones calling the shots. Let them be the ones showcasing their point of view and their spirit. Watching the kids on the day of the shoot and looking at the photographs yesterday, I know we were successful in doing just that.

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christian vercler mdChristian J. Vercler, M.D., is a pediatric craniofacial surgeon and serves as a Clinical Assistant Professor in the Division of Craniofacial Surgery in the Section of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery at the University of Michigan. He has a special interest in medical ethics, and is Co-Director of the Clinical Ethics Program in the Center for Bioethics and Social Sciences at the University of Michigan and is co-chair of the Pediatric Ethics Committee at C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital.


best children's hospitalUniversity of Michigan C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital is consistently ranked one of the best hospitals in the country. It was nationally ranked in all ten pediatric specialties in U.S. News Media Group’s “America’s Best Children’s Hospitals,” and among the 10 best children’s hospitals in the nation by Parents Magazine. In December 2011, the hospital opened our new 12-story, state-of-the-art facility offering cutting-edge specialty services for newborns, children and women.