The Alibi's photographer, Xavier Mascareñas, has a natural talent for bringing out the best in kids, a skill as useful as it is rare. He’s put that talent to impressive use in an exhibit that opened last week in the UNM Hospital Art Gallery, of all places. Beginning last Friday, the walls of that gallery will display Xavier's photographs, part of a project to document the move of UNM's old Children's Hospital to the new UNM Children’s Hospital Barbara and Bill Richardson Pavilion.
He got involved in the project through the influence of one of his professors, Miguel Gandert, the renowned photographer who teaches his craft at UNM.
“The nurses wanted to document the building they're leaving and the work they do,” says Xavier. “I worked day-to-day in each of the units, trying to get a feel for and capture what's there and what they do.”
The project left him with plenty of room to improvise. The move took place over a single weekend, so that aspect was only a small part of Xavier's focus. “There aren't any architectural photographs or anything like that,” he says. “I'm sure some people might want to see something like that, but to me that's not what this story was about. I wanted to catch the spirit of the place where these nurses work.”
His rapport with kids had a big influence on the project. “I love kids,” he says. “The kids were easier to interact with sometimes, because they had more time than the nurses. Kids are taught to be very guarded by their parents these days, but when they're told by their mom or dad that it's OK to open up, they do very easily.”
As far as the nurses, Xavier gravitated to the ones who had their own children. He heard them talking about them or saw family pictures on their desks, and he wondered how that affected their jobs. “I figured it must be more stressful for them, because as a parent I'd constantly be freaking out seeing all these terrible things that happen to kids.”
His vision for the assignment shifted dramatically when he met and befriended a young couple at the hospital. “Their daughter was in the pediatric ICU [intenstive care unit]. She was born with a lot of different issues. Before she was born, she was really expected to be stillborn. But she made it. She was on life support basically the entire time.”
Xavier says most newborns move through the ICU fairly quickly, in a week or two. The couple's child remained there for 10 months. “They [the family] really became a part of that hospital,” he says. “Every day they'd come in, and it was great to see because there were kids whose parents wouldn't be able to come in for one reason or another. Yet these parents were there all the time, and their child wasn't even conscious. It was surprising she made it at all. They really had a great attitude—that every day they had with her was a gift.”
The couple was quite young, in their early twenties, and this was their first child. “I didn't know where it was going, but their hope was contagious. They weren't going so far as making plans. They were just living in the moment, I guess. The big thing was I was able to be there for her first birthday. Hopefully, that helped, to some extent—they'd have some document, some photos, to remember their child.”
Tragically, their daughter died shortly after that first birthday. “When it happened, I was actually out of town,” Xavier says. The mother contacted him to let him know about the funeral. He attended and took some photographs. The experience moved him, mainly because of the couple's heartbreaking ordeal, but also because the funeral provided him with a final opportunity to see some familiar faces from the hospital. “Several of the nurses were there, and that's when it really hit home to me how much of their heart is in their jobs. I don't think many doctors would do that.”