Throughout my career, I’ve had the privilege of working with teaching artists from both the visual and performing arts. At The Pablove Foundation, we partner with teaching artists who teach children living with cancer the art of photography. As leaders and relationship builders who know their medium, they—along with the students we serve—are truly the heartbeat of our organization. A question we often receive at the foundation is, “What does it take to successfully teach children living with chronic illness the art of photography?” Here’s an interview I conducted with Steven Hazlett, our national teaching artist for our Shutterbugs program in New York, NY.
Steven, you have taught photography to children in the healthcare system (specifically those living with cancer) for the past three years. How did you get into this line of work?
Teaching was something I had never considered before, but when I got involved with the Pablove Foundation’s Shutterbugs program as an assistant in 2013, the experience changed me. The local teaching artist I had worked with was looking for a replacement and suggested that I apply, and it’s been a blessing ever since. As a pediatric cancer survivor myself, it has been a dream come true to give back, especially in the realm of photography, which inspired me to reconnect with the world after my cancer.
What do you find most challenging about your teaching? Most rewarding?
The most challenging aspect would have to be time. I always wish I had more time with my students, not just to see them grow as learners, but to see them succeed and evolve as people. To overcome the obstacles that life has thrown at them, and to inspire others to do the same. Cancer is an isolating experience that can leave you feeling disconnected from the life you once knew, and it’s a feeling that you’re forced to live with long after remission. The beautiful thing about photography is it changes all of that. It reconnects you with the world in a new way, and bridges the gaps that once left you lost. The changes that my students encounter through photography are monumental, and I’m fortunate enough to see that change in a matter of weeks through programs like the Pablove Shutterbugs program. By the fifth week at graduation, I see brave new people who are ready to take on anything; embracing life with the love and strength they thought they never had. This is by far the most gratifying and rewarding experience I could ever ask for, and I’m so grateful to be able to play a small part in that.
As a teaching artist, how does the work you do with youth inform your own artistry?
I’m constantly learning from my students, as they are a huge source of inspiration for me. I love their explorative nature, and the sincerity that is so refreshingly evident in their work. But what inspires me most of all is their fearlessness. Photography is a powerful tool, and they wield it like a sword. Their camera is a badge of honor that allows them to be brave in their new world—which is huge for them. Their virtues are limitless, and constantly remind me how lucky I am to teach with them.
You recently attended a professional development summit for teaching artists with The Pablove Foundation. What did you learn?
I think one of the major takeaways for me was the importance of community, and how it impacts children affected by cancer. Our society is so distracted by technology today that we sometimes lose sight of what’s most important: human interaction. It seems so rudimentary to us that we sometimes overlook it, but its effects are profound. When you’re with a group of kids who have experienced cancer first hand, there is this energy in the room that is unspoken—you feel safer in numbers, you feel empowered, and every smile is an ounce of hope. As long as I can make them smile, I feel like I’ve done my job.
What advice would you give other teaching artists who want to work with populations such as children living with cancer?
I would advise them to redefine their goals in accordance with what’s most important for their students. You only have so much time with them; it’s essential to think about how you can impact them most. Realize that it’s not about the outcome of their art, but the process in which it’s made. Teach them to be fearless, and to embrace the world around them. My ultimate goal is that they utilize those tools for the rest of their life, and continue to live fearlessly.
Jane Cheung is a member of Americans for the Arts.