Documenting Illness: Images of Hope

Riley waits for her turn to get out on the field. Photo credit: Abby Archer
Riley waits for her turn to get out on the field. Photo credit: Abby Archer

In the midst of a serious illness, there are glimpses of a childhood intact: painting a ceramic ladybug, reading “Froggy Learns to Swim” before bed with siblings Drew, 10, Meghan, 8, and Daniel, 2, and joining friends in the outfield for a summer staple – a baseball game.

These are the ordinary moments in 7-year-old Riley Fessenden’s life, captured by Abby Archer, a photography major and recent graduate of Endicott College in Beverly, Mass.

Photo credit Abby Archer
Riley at a check-up. Photo credit Abby Archer

These slow summer days are a gift, a reprieve from the rigors of treatment for Riley, who was diagnosed in May 2013 with esthesioneuroblastoma, a rare form of nasal cancer. Riley just completed six radiation treatments, and is receiving oral chemotherapy at Dana-Farber/Boston Children’s Cancer and Blood Disorders Center.

Archer first met Riley after studying medical documentary photography for her thesis project. “From the start, I knew that I wanted to document a child battling illness and his or her family,” she says.

Fortuitously, Archer saw an Endicott College Facebook post in January 2014. The college had just hosted Riley and her parents for lunch and made her an honorary student, because it is her dream to attend Endicott. Sensing an opportunity, Archer contacted Riley’s parents, Kamie and Todd Fessenden. “They were completely open to me entering their lives and photographing them,” says Archer. “I have been documenting the family ever since.”

Riley and her brother. Photo credit Abby Archer
Riley and her brother. Photo credit Abby Archer

For Archer, documenting Riley’s life using a tumblr feed has become more than an academic project. “When I first met the family, I knew they were something special,” she says. “They have an outstanding amount of strength and are as positive about their situation as they can be. Riley is a happy, smiling, strong girl, surrounded by supportive family, friends, and community.”

Just as important as documenting Riley’s illness was witnessing “how the family does their best to keep a sense of normalcy in coping,” Archer says. “The best way that this came through is usually through the little, everyday moments. We are able to see the love this family shares and how they are focusing on the quality of Riley’s life and enjoying every moment with her.”

Archer documents the juxtaposition of the Fessenden family’s home life and Riley’s illness in a hospital setting. “I did not want this series of photographs to be just about what illness looks like,” Archer says. “I also wanted it to show what it means to a family, and how they cope with it; how they continue to live.”

Reading a story before bed. Photo credit Abby Archer
A story before bed. Photo credit Abby Archer

While the project is now complete and Archer has graduated, she continues to spend time with the Fessendens. “I have become very close with the entire family,” she says. “What I have learned from them is the importance of love. They share their positivity with me without any effort. Their laughter has made me smile along with them.”