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Cameras help kids cope with cancer

The Pablove Shutterbugs program is lifting spirits by teaching kids about the art of photography as they battle a serious illness. NBC's Chris Jansing reports.

By Craig Stanley
NBC News

LOS ANGELES – When Layne Simkins, 12, was diagnosed with leukemia last year, he spent a lot of time in the hospital. 

And while there, in addition to receiving treatment, he also developed a new skill: the art of photography.

Through a program called Pablove Shutterbugs, Layne and other children living with different types of cancer are given a digital camera and a photography mentor for hands-on training.

Click here to learn more about Pablove Shutterbugs.

Layne, whose work was featured at the 'Gallery Show' in Los Angeles in May, credits mentor, Graham John Bell, for much of his newfound artistic insight. 


"He's taught me a lot of skills -- how to hold the camera and how to keep it still when you're taking the pictures," Layne said. "He's the one who showed me that you could see the most boring thing ever and just take a picture of it a certain way, and it will just become really interesting."

Aiden / The Pablove Foundation

Kids diagnosed with cancer discover the art of photography in the Pablove Shutterbugs program.

'The world really is a beautiful place'

Layne, now in remission, has come a long way as a photographer. His mother, Wendy Simkins, said she's also noticed another kind of growth.

"It's helped him come out of his shell a little bit more," she said. "Since he's been diagnosed with the cancer, he's had a tough time, 'cause he's stuck at home. This gave him an opportunity, when he was able to go out or do things, that he can look through the lens and not really think about what was going on with himself. [He] could really think about, 'Wow. There's a whole world out there, but this is just a small part of my life that I'm battling now. But I have such a great future to look forward to. And the world really is a beautiful place."

Jeff Castelaz and Jo Ann Thrailkill reflect on the life of their son and the inspiring moments of creation born in his memory.

Pablove Shutterbugs co-founder Jo Ann Thrailkill said part of the program's purpose is to help bring a sense of normalcy to the lives of children afflicted with cancer.

"Your child isn't in school when they're in treatment and ... your life is constantly revolving around medical appointments," Thrailkill said.

Thrailkill's husband and co-founder, Jeff Castelaz, added, "We're trying to help families to get their child into a situation where they can be in sort of a school-type situation.  Where they're learning something."

The program is named after the couple's youngest son, Pablo, who died in 2009 from Wilms Tumor, a rare form of childhood cancer, at the age of six. They started the Pablove Foundation in 2008 to raise money for pediatric cancer research. Three years later -- with the help of their friend Catherine Berclaz, a producer, creative director and co-founder -- the Pablove Shutterbug program was born. 

Catherine Berclaz discusses the origin of Pablove Shutterbugs and its mission—to teach children with cancer how to express themselves through the art of photography.

Pablo had a strong interest in photography, often taking photos and arranging shoots with his older brother, Grady. Jeff and Jo Ann said the photos Pablo took are a strong part of his legacy today.

"What we realized about Pablo was that, when he passed away, every possible photo we could find that he took or that he was in -- became very, very precious to us," Jeff said. "The photos and videos that we found that we had never seen, really, to this day, carry a really important place in our lives."

An amazing imagination

Pablo’s passion for photography lives on in Pablove Shutterbugs, which gives its young participants an opportunity to cultivate their photographic proficiency.

"A lot of our kids are painters," Jeff said. "They like to draw, but they can't be touching those materials anymore. I think, with photography, it's something clean.  It's a way for them to express themselves."

Layne's mentor, who said Layne showed "amazing creative imagination" despite battling fatigue during the early weeks of the program, says Pablove Shutterbugs gives the students a sense of control.

NBC's Chris Jansing sits down with shutterbug Layne Simkins. Layne shares some of his work and talks about his battle with cancer.

"Photography for me has always had the power to freeze a split second in time - something that will never happen again, that's it, it's history," Bell said in an e-mail. "This enables them if they wish to remove themselves outside of their current situation and play with those split seconds on their terms."

Beyond creative expression, Berclaz said the program includes educational and social components.  But one topic they choose not to discuss is cancer.

"In this room, cancer has no place," Berclaz said. "We talk about photography. We talk about visuals. We talk about what colors they like. We talk about technique ... They get to talk about something else besides cancer treatment with other kids, which is a really great thing for them ... And the work they put out is astonishing."

Berclaz recalled a positive experience in which she asked one of the past program participants how he enjoyed a class session.

"I love it," the student told her. "There's no needles."

Layne, who said he often had to deal with those needles during hospital visits, was appreciative of the program. In fact, he's incorporated photography into his future.

"If I'm not, like, a photographer when I grow older," Layne said, "I'm sure taking pictures would definitely be a hobby [of] mine."