Last week I had the delightful task of capturing the magic of Over The Wall’s Family Camps, and in doing so not only did I learn more, as ever, about photography, but also about what it is to be able to fit in when you’re a kid with a serious illness. Family Camp is an opportunity for whole families affected by serious childhood illness to experience camp, usually before a camper comes by themselves to a full camp. Camp runs a programme called Therapeutic Recreation, where volunteers are trained to create an atmosphere of achievement, and foster success through challenges at every opportunity, whilst encouraging reflection in real time whenever possible, with the aim of achieving discovery moments and breakthroughs for every camper. At Family Camp, we squish our therapeutic recreation programme into one weekend with incredible outcomes. Families leave us in a completely different way to how they came, and the feedback we receive is beyond what we ever imagine. Unfortunately, this story whilst largely positive, has a sad ending, for which I apologise in advance. This is the story of young Pirate Captain Paintbeard.
I was running late for Family Camp having travelled from the South Coast of England to a castle in the heart of Scotland and by the time I arrived, everyone was already waist-deep into the dressing up boxes finding costumes to dress up in to become Super Secret Superhero Special Agents – the theme for the weekend. I walked in, dumped by bag and immediately got to work snapping photos of the imaginative creations all around me, from child and adult alike. There were two Supermans, a Batman (with a red cape!), a Kung Fu ninja, and a father and son Woody duo. Each had a special super power, including invisibility, invincibility and the ability to heal other children.The costume boxes were jumbled as there had only just been a full camp recently, so most kids and all the adults, had taken a pick and mix approach to dressing themselves up, adding in missing masks with facepaint or combining Woody’s jacket with Troy from High School Musical’s basketball shorts (the superpower being Sheriff of Slam-dunks, of course). One child however, had dug deep and persevered to create a complete outfit with all the accessories. He’d transformed himself into a pirate, with Captain’s hat, a huge curly black wig, eye patch, assorted necklaces, jacket, belt, sword, telescope, baggy trousers and massive boots. I started snapping away on my camera as he was finishing off the look by having a beard and moustache drawn on with facepaint. I nicknamed him ‘Pirate Captain Paintbeard’, and from then on that’s what everyone referred to him as for the remainder of the weekend, shortening it simply to ‘Captain’. Once the transformation was complete, he made himself a cape out of fabric, and decorated a mask so he could join in with the Superhero tasks that would run throughout the weekend.
Around camp that weekend, endless faces were painted and repainted, and every costume combination imaginable was worn like a real-life game of Misfits, although throughout Pirate Captain Paintbeard stayed as a pirate. He lost the hat and wig, and didn’t always carry around the sword or telescope, but I never saw him without his facepaint beard and eye patch. One of my favourite aspects of camp is enabling children to be whoever they want to be, to relax and, as Paul Newman puts it, “kick back and raise a little hell”. At the serious illness camps we try our best to let sick kids just be kids, and at sibling camps we allow brothers and sisters to get the attention they so desperately crave. The extra magic of family camp is that for families with more than one child, unless physically obvious, it’s often impossible to tell, even to the trained eye, who is the “sick kid”. Captain and his sister were at camp that weekend with their mum. His sister was small for her age, and spent the weekend dressed as a princess, practically forcing her volunteers to follow her carrying her train, cuddly dog and adjust her tiara. Without giving it too much thought, in the back of my mind I’d decided she was probably the child with the serious illness, then carried on with my task of taking photos of the weekend so the families could reflect on their time at camp.
Pirate Captain Paintbeard did everything dressed, at least partially, as a pirate – including singing the Pirate Song. Then, on the last day of camp, it was time to go swimming. It was only when we were all in the pool, building a boat out of the giant construction floats, that I saw Captain commanding the crew-mates from his end of the ship and realised it wasn’t his sister who was sick at all. Captain had lost his facepaint in the water, and no longer had any pirate-themed accessories, except for his eyepatch. It then noticed it wasn’t one of the plastic or foam eyepatches we usually have in the dressing up boxes, rather it was made of leather with an adjustable strap. Captain was the sick kid, but for the entirety of the weekend he had just been a kid. Nobody had stared at him, nobody pointed. Nobody even tried to go out of their way to awkwardly say things like “Woah, nice eyepatch buddy, hi-five!”. Another volunteer had used an eyepatch as part of one of their costumes, and as usual I had done myself up as a pirate too, complete with patch, to avoid to constant need to close one eye to look through my camera’s viewfinder. As Captain sailed off towards the deep end with his shipmates, I thought about the impact of camp upon children like him, and about the other campers, each affected by serious illness, who I’d been lucky enough to share camp with. I had only ever known them as ‘just kids’. I was grateful to be in the swimming pool at the time, as thankfully nobody would notice the tear roll down my cheek.
Update: at this year’s family camp, the eyepatch didn’t even make it out the suitcase! What wonderful progress over a year!