This Photographer Defeated Cancer As A Teen. Now, He’s Teaching Kids Fighting The Same Battle.

“Being able to give back to people and be in touch and have an impact on them is an impact on me.”

Twice a year, children spend five weeks filling their Saturdays with photography lessons, their cameras with pictures, and their hearts with joy as part of the Pablove Foundation's Shutterbugs program. 

"Cancer's not invited to the party," Amber Eyerly, the foundation's director of marketing, told A Plus. Unlike most programs available to children diagnosed with cancer or other illnesses, this is no run of the mill hospital arts and crafts session. Shutterbugs, as the participants are called, gather at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York or other creative centers in cities across the country. 

Steven Hazlett, one of the organization's local teaching artists in New York, discovered his love for photography the way many of his current students do: in class. 

Courtesy Steven Hazlett.
Courtesy Steven Hazlett.

"I got my first camera through there — my first real DSLR camera — and I was hooked instantly," he told A Plus. "The first assignment was just to go out… and I probably spent about 5 hours just shooting around NYC and photographing people. It's been a passion ever since." His students, ranging from age six to over eighteen, feel similarly. 

Hazlett says he's seen countless kids come out of their shell by getting behind the lens. 

"The curriculum at Pablove is beautiful because it kind of makes Shutterbugs look at life in a new way… in a new light," he said. "We uncover the different layers of photography starting out with the basics, like light and portraits… It slowly uncovers itself and naturally and gradually builds their confidence." 

He considers the best part of his volunteer work simply watching them reconnect with the world around them and explore life in a different way. "I think that's one of the greatest things," he added. "When I review their work each week and see all the places they've been and the smiles on their face."

Those smiles continue even after the program ends, as every participant gets to keep the camera given to them at the beginning of the program. Many of the students bring their cameras with them everywhere. Whether or not they realize it, they carry something even more important with them, too — lessons learned along the way. "All the things that we teach them, they can take home long after the program's over," Hazlett said. 

But Hazlett doesn't just teach his students about the elements of photography. As a cancer survivor himself, he also teaches them hope and resilience. 


Courtesy Steven Hazlett.
Courtesy Steven Hazlett.

Knowing firsthand the process of going through chemo, radiation, and sometimes surgery, he connects to them on a unique and personal level. "It kind of shuts you down as a person. So I know patience is a big part of it. That's something I've always worked on ever since I was younger," he explained. "To the outside world you'll see someone going through cancer as a very quiet, kind of reserved person but, as a survivor myself, I think I kind of know the meaning behind it, whereas most people wouldn't." 

Hazlett discovered Pablove through an online ad a few years ago and has only increased his volunteer involvement with each passing session. First working as a teaching assistant, he was soon encouraged to become a local teaching artist himself. Most recently, he even became a counselor at the foundation's three-day summer camp for Shutterbug alumni at Lake Arrowhead in California. Kids from all over the country attended and got to become amateur photojournalists covering the recent drought. "It was definitely a new adventure for everyone, including me," Hazlett said. "Just spending the entire day with one another, there's a lot of camaraderie. It kind of rolls up what you would get after five Saturdays… into one big day — and it's amazing." 

He remembered one 8-year-old camper, Matthew, took a stunning picture of exposed tree roots. "Some of the things they documented were incredible," Hazlett added. "He was one of those Shutterbugs who was super shy, not much confidence, but the second he starts to see his photos he's like, 'Wow.'"

Courtesy Steven Hazlett.
Courtesy Steven Hazlett.

Just as Hazlett has given his time and talent to the Shutterbugs program, he's gained even more in return.

"They're [Pablove] overall just a life source. They're an organization that really just breathes life into anything that comes in contact with it and they're a big source of inspiration for me," he told A Plus. ""Ever since I was in remission, the first thing I wanted to do was give back… When you're given a second chance at life, what better way to appreciate that and to honor that than to give back and help others?" 

Hazlett's diagnosis wasn't a death sentence, but a chance at a new, even more fulfilling, life. He's making the most of it. 

"Being able to give back to people and  be in touch and have an impact on them is an impact on me," he said. "It inspires me to leave a positive impact on anyone I encounter or cross paths with… Everybody's fighting a battle we know nothing about." 

To Hazlett, art is one of the greatest medicines because gives people joy and insight into other aspects of their lives. 

Courtesy Steven Hazlett.
Courtesy Steven Hazlett.

"I think photography in particular is one of those great arts that gets you outside. It gets you moving. It gets you inspired," he said. "It's something you don't see in a hospital room. It's something [traditional] medicine can't give you." 

A Plus is proud to announce that we are partnering with The Pablove Foundation during September, and that we'll be releasing stories featuring Pablove and its work throughout the month. Their mission? To fight childhood cancer with love. 

Support Pablove and childhood cancer research by "going steady" and giving monthly. Learn more about the campaign and the cause here.