Photojournalist spotlights patients in series of films

Photojournalist Ross Taylor captures an interaction between music therapist Claire Arezina and patient Aiden Erwin, as Aiden’s mom looks on.

Patient Kayla Smith touches the guitar as music therapist Claire Arezina sings to her, a moment caught on film by photojournalist Ross Taylor.

A child without hair reaches inquisitive fingers to the strings of a guitar during a “music therapy” session.

A man with kidney failure tears up when his sister — “she’s my everything,” he describes — offers her healthy kidney for transplant. 

A mother and father remind themselves “one day at a time,” as their preschooler battles a brain tumor. 

Ross Taylor of The Virginian-Pilot. (Stephen M. Katz/The Virginian-Pilot)These video vignettes tell the poignant stories of Upstate University Hospital patients. They were produced by Pulitzer Prize-nominated photojournalist Ross Taylor, a fellow at the Multimedia Photography and Design Department at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University. Working closely with Kathleen Paice Froio of Upstate’s Public and Media Relations Department, Taylor spent many days at the hospital last fall talking with patients, family and staff who allowed him to be present during many personal and emotional moments.

Taylor, a photojournalist for 20 years, is known for his sensitive ability to tell deeply personal stories. He has shot on assignment in six countries and is co-creator of The Image Deconstructed, a nationally recognized blog that highlights an image and asks the photographer to deconstruct the creation of the image, and the psychology and emotion behind the photograph.

He has won the prestigious National Photojournalist of the Year award, and he was nominated for a Pulitzer for his documentary photographs in a trauma hospital in Afghanistan.

For his projects at the hospital, Taylor is working in video, rather than still photography. 

“Film is much more difficult to do, and even harder to do well. It takes much more time and investment on both my part, but also the hospital and the patients who are willing to share their story,” he says. “I believe, though, that in the end, it’s a very powerful way to share someone’s story, and it’s worth the extra work.”

His three Upstate films include:

* “Music Therapy” showcases the work of board certified music therapist Clare Arezina,  who uses music as a tool to help connect with and heal patients in the Upstate Golisano Children’s Hospital. 

“I do have days where I feel like there should be ‘Rocky’ theme music playing in the background behind me, and it’s fantastic,” Arezina says. “It’s those very clear moments of ‘this is absolutely why my job has worth,’ and ‘this is why I do what I do.’ It’s really rewarding those days to be able to have that kid smile, to have a kid reach who hasn’t reached for anything, to have a kid play and interact who hasn’t been playful or interactive.”

She goes on to explain that musical performers are focused on how they sound. But she is focused on how the child is experiencing the music and what it’s doing for his or her body, mind, emotions and spirit.

* “This Changes Everything” tells the sort of Aiden Erwin, 4, and his parents, Melanie Overy and Glen Erwin, as they cope with their son’s brain cancer diagnosis. They have been basically living at the hospital.

“Just one day at a time. That’s what you tell yourself every day,” Overy says. “Things change very quickly, and you don’t want to get your hopes up or have your hopes too low. You just kinda want to take it as it comes.”

* “A New Beginning” follows a brother and sister through a living kidney donation. LaToya Alexander says when she learned that her brother Robert Barnes was suffering kidney failure, she said “I’ll do it. Yeah. I’ll get tested, and I’ll donate my kidney if it’s a match.

“He said, ‘what’s your blood type?’ And I said, ‘O postive.’ And he said, ‘that’s the same one I am.’ 

Loved ones prayed with Barnes and Alexander before their surgery on Nov. 12, 2013 with transplant director, J. Keith Melancon, MD.

“If you don’t have good kidney function, your life is tremendously shortened. Even a young person is not going to have a normal life expectancy. So when someone donates a kidney to you, they’re really vastly extending your life. They’re saving your life,” the surgeon explains.

“These people are different after that operation. Everybody is transformed by this experience.”


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