September 21, 2019

Capturing Chai Lifeline’s ‘Faces of Hope’

From “Faces of Hope”. Photo from Davis Factor

A photographer doesn’t always seek out the subject of his next project. Sometimes it finds him. 

Fashion and celebrity photographer Davis Factor was exhibiting a series of photos he had shot for ETTA. His images of the special needs men and women who receive social services and housing assistance from ETTA drew the attention and praise not just from that organization’s supporters but also from representatives of Chai Lifeline.  

Factor told the Journal that Randi Grossman, the West Coast director of Chai Lifeline, approached him at the ETTA benefit and said, “This is so beautiful. Can you do something with us?” “I said, ‘What do you do?’ She said, ‘We work with children with various illnesses and their families,’ and I said, ‘I’m in. I’ll do it.’ ” 

Factor recounted the memory from the ground floor of the Museum of Tolerance (MOT), where the 54 black-and-white images of Chai Lifeline children and parents are on display through Aug. 19. The title of the exhibition is “Faces of Hope,” which is fitting because hope and normalcy are what Chai Lifeline works to give these families. And hope is also every bit what Factor was seeking to capture during the year he spent visiting and shooting these families. 

“It just brought up so many emotions,” he said. “It showed me a greater appreciation for my own life, that’s for sure.”

From late 2017 through 2018, Davis visited hospitals, homes, summer camps and various events during which he would visit with children, caregivers and parents. The parents were eager to talk about their family’s journey, and sometimes the children would also talk about their illnesses. In other cases, they would just chat with Factor about their interests or activities and then the photographer and his “model” would simply hang out.

Factor met kids who were battling leukemia, cerebral palsy, cystic fibrosis and spina bifida. Several families had children who were unable to speak, and some required 24-hour care. Eventually, he would pull out a small Fuji point-and-shoot camera and capture a few images with no lighting or elaborate setups required.

Factor said he bonded easily with his subjects. Some had interest in photography. Others were mad for makeup, a subject that Factor — the great-grandson of Max Factor and the founder of Smashbox Cosmetics — knows a thing or two about. 

“A lot of the families I met, their children have had these illnesses since birth,” Factor said. “They really wanted these photos to be seen. They wanted people to see that what’s not normal for someone else is super normal to them. It was incredible. I have never experienced anything like that before.”

“Those kids and their families are people who have been through so much. To take a moment in their life and capture it, it’s amazing to have some kind of a memory forever.” — Paz Scharf

Factor chose black and white to give the photos “a little bit of mystery” and to keep the images from being too emotional. At the MOT, the photos are displayed without accompanying caption cards. 

 “I wanted to keep it completely anonymous,” the photographer said. “I just felt the photos speak for themselves.”

The exhibition’s opening drew some of the Chai Lifeline kids and their parents, many of whom were seeing the pictures for the first time. The Scharf family met Factor after their son Aviv successfully completed a course of treatment for Richter’s syndrome lymphoma. Factor met them in their home and hung out with Aviv. His main instruction: Just be yourself. 

And 11-year-old Aviv did just that, playing “Minecraft” on his computer and breaking out some of his favorite Lego creations. Although he doesn’t typically enjoy having his photo taken,  Aviv said the experience was fine. 

“Those kids and their families are people who have been through so much,” said his mother, Paz. “To take a moment in their life and capture it, it’s amazing to have some kind of a memory forever.”

Cammy Marks, 19, and Sienna Wolfe, 15, were not able to attend the MOT opening. Both were away at Camp Simcha, the facility that Chai Lifeline operates in the Catskill Mountains for children and teens with cancer, blood disease and other disabilities. 

“But they told us, ‘You better go and take pictures and send them to us,’ ” said Wolfe’s mother, Dr. Michele Kalt. “So we stood next to our kids’ pictures and held hands and sent them.” 

The exhibition has two photos of each girl. Marks sits in a hospital bed with a blanket and favorite teddy bear nearby. Her mother, Sandy Marks, recalled that mother and daughter were staying with a family after being displaced by the Woolsey fire in November. It was during this interval that the Marks learned their daughter — who was diagnosed with malignant melanoma at age 11 — would need additional surgery. 

Marks is studying art history at USC while also pursuing a career in medicine. In addition to the photo shoots at the hospital, Factor captured Marks ice skating. Studying the hospital photo, her mother said she sees her daughter’s introspective side. “She is an amazing fighter,” Sandy said. “I see her inner strength.”

In an adjacent photo, Sienna stands against a window, meeting the camera’s gaze head on. She holds a rose at her shoulder, adjacent to her face.

“If you meet Sienna, she is a beacon of positivity and socialness and joy,” Kalt said of her daughter, who was diagnosed with a type of sarcoma at age 6, “but what Davis captured is the inside, the part that she only shares with me, the pain she tells nobody else about, the hurt and the fear that nobody else gets to know.” 

The photos have earned Factor the Vision of Hope Award from Chai Lifeline. MOT Director Liebe Geft was pleased not only to bring Factor’s work back to the museum but to display “Faces of Hope” during the summer. 

“Many of the photographs were captured at the Chai Lifeline summer camps and I believe they are filled with exuberance and joy, conveying that message for everyone that regardless of who we are and how difficult the challenges in our life are, summer can be that wonderful time of sun and fun and friends and family and filled with joy,” Geft said. “When I look at these, I see a tremendous amount of hope and faith, resilience and courage, and these are the stories we like to amplify at the Museum of Tolerance.”

“Faces of Hope” runs through Aug. 19 at the Museum of Tolerance, 9786 W. Pico Blvd. For more information, visit the website.