Maria Maldonado cries hugging Ethan Arbelo, 12, as he transitions into death on July, 3, 2014, in Lehigh Acres, Fla. “In those last minutes when you know your son is taking those last breaths, all you’re doing is praying for death for you too because you can’t imagine life without your baby,” Maria said.
IMAGES MADE IN THE SPIRIT OF THE SUBJECT
I was recently asked by EyeEm to select a neat piece of storytelling I’d seen in the past year or so. I thought back to Dania Maxwell‘s piece Little Man.
Here’s what I wrote.
One story from the last year that really caught my eye was Dania Maxwell’s Little Man, the story of Ethan Arbelo, who was ten when doctors diagnosed him with terminal brain cancer. This is the story of Ethan’s journey from boy to young man and his pursuit of happiness along the way.
Stories, particularly extended news stories or human interests profiles of individuals with terminal diagnoses are relatively common, but here Maxwell found in Arbelo a subject that really took the message, the impact and the emotion of the work to a new level.
Reggie Iacono, right, helps Ethan Arbelo, 12, choose a poster for his bedroom while out for a boys’ day on February 21, 2014 in Fort Myers, Fla. Reggie, the son of one of Maria’s friends, moved in with Maria and Ethan in January to act as Ethan’s caregiver for a few months while Maria was back at work.
Arbelo was between childhood and adulthood and so his bucket list was a hotchpotch of things — some very predictable and others very surprising. For example, the photo of the woman kissing him as an 11-year-old is seriously dicey, but then you must remember that the things we see in the photos are things Ethan had discussed with his mother beforehand. Some dying wishes could be attained and others not.
Ethan Arbelo, 11, kisses Ashley Schroeder at a mud park named, The Redneck Yacht Club on May 25, 2013, in Punta Gorda, Fla. Ethan’s mom took him to the mud park as a compromise after Ethan had asked for a stripper for his 12th birthday. It was the first time Ethan had kissed a girl. “It felt like ice cream melting on my tongue,” he said.
Furthermore, over the course of the images we see the changes in Ethan’s body; we witness his death in pictures. But in each frame his personality bursts through. The story in each frame trumps the desperate circumstances Ethan is in. In that sense, Maxwell has achieved what all good photography should attempt to do — to really capture the subject’s spirit. Maxwell does this without trivializing, or patronizing, or sugarcoating.
The images are made in the spirit that Ethan wanted to live out his life; they’re optimistic and try to hone in on the common optimism we all surely have.
Two days after Ethan Arbelo died, Maria Maldonado receives a tattoo of a drawing Ethan made with their initials just before losing movement in his hands, at Ink Cafe on July 5, 2014, in Cape Coral, Fla. “This way he is always with me,” Maria said.
WHAT DOES “STORYTELLING” MEAN?
I think our future will be better if we start to agree as a community what storytelling is. It seems now that the term storytelling is a descriptor for everything. The term has been diluted. Are casual Instagrammers storytellers? Maybe, but I don’t think so. Is Humans Of New York storytelling? Yes, but the captions do the telling and the photos are not needed. Are selfies storytelling? What about still portraits? Storytelling has become a synonym of too many things to the point I don’t know if we’re all on the same page. For me, this is to storytellers’ and audiences’ detriment.
I’d like to see more long term projects and deep reporting and less throw away image making. I’d prefer one year long well-researched story than 3 or 4 in a year. I want to see huge silences on photographers’ social media, because then I know (I hope?!) they’re away reporting. Let’s make images to make stories visible, not just to feed the channels and try to stay visible ourselves.
ALSO, THE GIF
I think the GIF, and to a degree the looped video have huge untapped potential for telling stories in a clever way. Brandon Tauszik’s Tapered Throne is the best example I’ve seen of GIFs being used for documentary purposes but there’s all sorts of applications. Get over cat GIFs and memes and there’s a lot to be made, told and discovered.
Taylor Glascock’s feature of Little Man on Vantage: Dying Couldn’t Stop Ethan From Living.
Read the selections of four other photo editors much more expert than I: 5 Leading Photo Editors on the Most Powerful Storytelling Today