August 2009

by Lisa Wiltse

At the age of 32 I decided to go back to summer camp. After living in Australia for five years I quit my job as a staff photographer for a newspaper and decided to take the deep dive into the daunting world of freelance.

© Lisa Wiltse
Young camper, Josh, enjoys the afternoon with his counselor at the ropes course, one of the many activities offered at Double H.
On one of my tireless searches for all things photographic, I stumbled upon the Double H summer camp. The ad said, "Photographer and counselor needed to document terminally ill children at a summer camp for eight weeks this summer." A chance to tell a long-term story for a worthy nonprofit and get paid for it: It sounded like a dream.

© Lisa Wiltse
A young boy lies on the ground at the ropes course awaiting his turn on the giant swing. It is one of many activities offered to the kids at Double H.
Every child should be able to attend summer camp. There should be no exceptions to the rule; however, a child who is chronically ill can require special circumstances making summer camp a highly unlikely possibility. The Double H Ranch in Lake Luzerne, N.Y., founded by Charles R. Wood and the beloved actor/philanthropist Paul Newman, provides specialized programs and year-round support for children dealing with life-threatening illnesses, and their families. The purpose of the camp is to enrich their lives and provide camp experiences that are memorable, exciting, fun, empowering, physically safe and medically sound. Children with devastating illnesses such as sickle cell anemia, HIV, cerebral palsy and muscular dystrophy are given a week of what seems to them like an eternity filled with activities they would never experience at home or in between hospital visits. These children I met at Lake Luzerne are some of the toughest children ever and could teach adults some lessons.

I arrived in Lake Luzerne from France at night and a day late, jet-lagged and disoriented. I dropped off my bags in a musty cabin and was led down the hill in the twilight past other cabins to the loud, reverberating cheers looming in the distance. As I drew closer I saw that the cheers were coming from hundreds of young "20-somethings," dancing and singing camp songs at the top of their lungs. I quickly realized that I wasn't only spending eight weeks with children but I would also be surrounded by hundreds of young committed and "perky" counselors. I immediately felt a threatening sense of unity among them and was 9 years old again. I was reminded of how often I work alone. I was never great with groups, especially in college, and thought that this was going to be one of the longest, toughest and most challenging stories I would ever tell.

© Lisa Wiltse
A young girl rushes past a cabin in her witch costume to the Double H dance, the most anticipated activity during the week when all the campers get together to mingle.
The phenomenon of summer camp in the USA! For five years in my youth I went to summer camp where I had some of the most memorable yet terrifying experiences ever. During those five years at camp I fell in love for the first time while experiencing terrible homesickness and spent never-ending days swimming in the lake and making tie-dyed t-shirts. With stars in my eyes I gazed at counselors who were picture perfect. In many ways camp shaped me as a person. It is the quintessential American summer getaway for kids, a welcome relief for parents. At the same time it is akin to a cult experience filled with mystery and magic. No one outside camp ever truly understands its strange hold. Everything takes place in an isolated eight-week context. There is no outside world when you are at summer camp – you have always been at camp, you will always be at camp.

It was week two and I was slowly getting into the rhythm of camp, trying to balance telling the children's story and being a counselor, when I was asked to assist in showering a 16-year-old girl who has Rett Syndrome, a childhood neurodevelopment disorder that severely limits the ability to move. It was an extremely daunting experience for me because I had never had the responsibility before of physically caring for someone with an illness. There was a moment when I was trying to hold her dead weight from slipping in the shower when I realized the importance of what I was doing. This story went way beyond the confines of the camera. The assignment was not only asking me to document these kids but also to be a part of their lives and to be a part of the process of the story I am telling.

© Lisa Wiltse
A frenetic dining hall filled with campers anticipating their first dinner at Double H.
As a photographer I long for stories where I am able to spend long stretches of time getting to know the subjects. I find day-to-day assignments only give you a glimpse of an issue. I am past the halfway point of documenting this story and find this to be one of the most mentally challenging assignments I have ever had. Most often during an assignment I go home at night, back to the hotel, put the camera down and edit. At Double H the camera slides behind my back and I pick up a child.

My camp experiences at the age of 32 are very different from what they were when I was young but the magic is still there. My passion for telling a photographic story aside, I simply love being with these inspiring children with their undeniable energy and positive outlook on life.

© Lisa Wiltse

Lisa Wiltse is a freelance photographer with a passion for social documentary storytelling. Over the last few years she has worked on issues ranging from teen pregnancy, climate refugees in Bangladesh to marginalized communities in Romania, Australia and the U.S. She has been recognized by Photo District News, the National Press Photographers Association and the Sony Awards, among others. Her work has been published in the Sydney Morning Herald, The FADER, Time magazine, Internazionale, Private Photo Review, etc. She is currently represented by Aurora Photos.

See more of her work at http://www.lisawiltse.com

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