Photographer (and attorney) Jonathan Diaz is on a mission to give hope to children diagnosed with cancer and is an inspiration to us all. He’s the creator of the Anything Can Be project, which collaborates with pediatric cancer patients to create images of their wildest dreams, from being a rockstar to being a dragon rider. Resource Magazine discussed this powerful project with Diaz and learned how he’s able to make such spectacular images while working under difficult limitations.
Diaz only recently discovered photography, he told us, “It was kind of like this light switch turned on in my head and all of a sudden I could just create things that I never thought I’d be able to create.” Eager to find subjects he could portray with his strong sense of imagination, Diaz turned to his own children, “I always wondered what’s going on in their minds when they’re playing with their toys, and so I’d create these images of what I would think is in their imagination.” After mastering the technique necessary to create these complex images, Diaz decided to put his new found skills to better use. He set out to help children who lose a part of their childhood to cancer by bringing their deepest dreams to life through photography. Before long, Diaz was devoting his time and talent to dozens of children, reaching out to pediatric cancer organizations for help in finding families interested in what he had to offer.
The above photograph is of Tristan, who lost his leg to cancer but dreamed of playing football for the San Fransisco 49ers. To make this image, Diaz flew to Candlestick Park to get the background shots before the stadium was torn down, then brought Tristan to the University of Utah for a full-on photo shoot with the university’s players. The final image allowed Tristan to see himself as he wants to be seen, “When he looks at that image he can get that inspiration and believe that he can actually make that happen.”
“Every one of the kids has taught me something. One of my favorite experiences was with Jordan (pictured above)… Three weeks before she was diagnosed [with Ewing Sarcoma] her father passed away. About nine weeks later, her doctors said there was nothing they could do… That’s when her mom called us.” Though Jordan was bedridden, she wanted to participate in Diaz’s project so her family could remember her and so she could offer hope to other sick children. However, the advanced state of Jordan’s illness presented a new challenge, “Her dream was to be Alice from Alice in Wonderland… and she wanted to stand for her picture.” Jordan was too weak to stand, so Diaz tried to convince her that she could lie down and he could just make it look like she’s standing, “but she just insisted that she wanted to stand… It took three people to hold her up while she stood and we shot her images. For me, that was the moment where I realized how powerful photography is… As she stood there and smiled, I don’t know what was going through her head, but I can only imagine that she believed this was something that would be used to help other people. She really wanted to stand and face her disease and face the fact that her life was ending. It was a powerful moment.” Sadly, Jordan passed away about three weeks after that photo shoot.
This project has not only been emotionally difficult for Diaz, but technically difficult as well. Diaz tries to include as much of what the kids are imagining as possible, but ultimately much of the imagery comes from his own imagination. Once the concept is set, Diaz and his team “go all out for these kids,” including professional hair, makeup, wardrobe, set, and lighting. He wants to make these images come to life, so he uses the equipment he thinks is best for the situation, preferring a Nikon D800 for the high resolution and Profoto B2 lights, “I love those lights because they have a TTL mode which will allow you to set the exposure, then adjust each light individually. It’s pretty amazing how easily you can get the exposer right, then adjust them quickly to get the look you want. That’s really helpful, especially when shooting with kids because they’re attentions don’t last very long.” After shooting each kid, Diaz adds the background images that he typically shoots himself (if time permits) and all of the special effects in photoshop to create complex and rich imagined worlds.
Those imagined worlds go a step further in the collaborative book that is the ultimate outcome of this project, True Heroes. This book uses the images created by Diaz as jumping off points for short fairy tails written by a number of New York Times best-selling authors. Diaz believes this format to be the best way to make these kids’ stories known , “Short stories really match still photography because in a short story, you only have four or five pages to flesh out a character and tell something compelling.” This book has already gained critical praise and is sure to be inspirational for children and adults alike.
Diaz plans on continuing this important work into the future, saying, “There’s something really powerful about using our imaginations to escape our world a little bit and find a better place because, you know, this life isn’t always easy.” The Anything Can Be project continues to give hope and offer a temporary escape to children suffering from cancer, “Cancer doesn’t define these kids, it’s not who they really are. That’s really what I try to capture with these images.”
[All images Copyright Anything Can Be Project]