A mother pushes a few wayward strands of her young son’s hair from across his forehead in preparation for the family portrait. The boy wears a white button-down shirt cuffed at the forearm, a bow tie, shorts and loosely laced black sneakers. It is still morning, but the studio is already sweltering in the Las Vegas summer heat. The photographer kneels in front of the boy, whom she has placed in a rounded, white swivel chair.
“Are you a professional?” she asks the boy, eliciting a shrug and a reticent smile. “You are. This is good … you are an absolute natural.”
“You are like the king,” the father says laughing to his son as the family of three huddles around the boy from behind for the group shots.
The session lasts only last a few minutes and the family departs after embracing and thanking the photographer for her work.
“Absolutely, it’s my pleasure,” she tells them. “Thanks for letting me photograph you.”
The only indication that this is something other than an ordinary family photo shoot is the 6-inch long scar along the back of the boy’s skull, still visible from where surgeons have shaved away a small portion of his jet-black hair.
“Working with these kids who are fighting cancer, they come in here with more hope and more happiness than some kids who have everything,” notes Denise Truscello, the photographer who has captured each of the images for 40 Faces of Candlelighters.
The project, sponsored by Comprehensive Cancer Centers, features 40 individuals and their families who have been helped by the services of the Candlelighters Childhood Cancer Foundation of Nevada, which is celebrating its 40th anniversary.
“They tell me their dreams,” Truscello says. “We have a lot to learn from them. The amount of love and support these families have for these kids is unending and unconditional — like all parents have for their children — but because there is an illness involved, there is something deeper that people who have not experienced it [might] not understand. I think time means a lot more to families that are dealing with sickness. These are families who have gone through a lot.”
Truscello says that despite the circumstances, the people she has worked with demonstrate unyielding positivity. “For them, it is just something they are living with, there is no attitude of despair,” she says. “There are bigger smiles, bigger dreams — this has been an incredible experience for me because of that.”
“Yes, it is very hard to go through illnesses and to see somebody you love being sick — but the amount of strength and closeness that happens with that has been beautiful to see.”
‘THE HARD THINGS’
Truscello has established herself as a leading celebrity photographer through a body of work that marries an artistic eye and innate sensitivity while documenting the lives of entertainers, historical figures and world leaders. But much of her experience in the medium has been to document a very different area of life.
“I always wanted to help, to be involved in things,” she reflects. “Even when I was a kid. At first, I wanted to be a photojournalist. To work on causes. I was more into the reality of life. The hard things, the difficult things, I wanted to shoot that.”
Truscello reached an inflection point on an early September day 17 years ago when she was sent by the Las Vegas Review-Journal to cover the scene of a fatal accident.
“A little boy was hit by a car and killed,” she recalls. “I remember getting yelled at by some of the people at the school [near the scene]. I had a hard time with that. My intent was to photograph human causes that the average person wouldn’t get to look at. It’s not to exploit. It’s so you can see what is happening in the world and maybe try to change it. But something struck me at that one shoot, the little boy.”
Only a few days later, Truscello headed to New York City on the first day that commercial flights resumed following the 2001 World Trade Center attacks. “Photographing 9/11 really affected me,” she says. “And as I was in the taxi from the airport and had my first look at where the World Trade Center buildings once stood, I only saw smoke…. I thought, ‘I don’t know if I can actually do this,’ because the first sight of that made it so real and surreal at the same time … but once I got to the area, something kicked in and I was able to focus and not think about how it was affecting me in the moment. I felt it but I didn’t let it get in the way of what I was supposed to do.”
On the wall in her studio hangs two Nevada Press Association awards for best spot news photography, one of which was for her work the week of 9/11 and the other is for the one-year anniversary/memorial.
“It’s weird how things can have two sides,” she says. “I don’t really like awards, yet it was nice to be recognized. But it was tough to be recognized for that.” Truscello was so shaken by the experience of photographing the aftermath of 9/11 to such an extent that she was preparing to abandon photography altogether. Soon after, an assignment to shoot a portrait of singer Britney Spears would lead her into the genre of celebrity photography.
“That’s when I met the people who would give me my first jobs,” she says. “That was Amy Sadowsky and Robert Earl from Planet Hollywood. That is how it started, with that one shoot. That’s when I met photographer Kevin Mazur and the other founders of WireImage who brought me on as a ‘mini’ partner a few months after it began. Then I opened the Las Vegas office [in 2001]. It all happened very fast.”
‘TAUGHT ME ABOUT LIFE’
Truscello first got into photography in 1993 after walking out of her acting class in Los Angeles. The same day she bought a camera and a ticket for a three-month backpacking tour through Europe. When it concluded, she settled in Paris, where she lived until 2000.
“I did not have a lot of money,” she recalls. “I would take a roll of film and shoot one or two photos a day because I could not afford the film or getting it developed. It was $20 a roll to develop then, which was a lot. “You did not waste your photo and it made you a better photographer. Plus, I did not have a flash, so I had to learn how to hold my breath and shoot at a low speed.
Her street photography was featured in a small exhibition in Paris, where she met the acclaimed photographer Édouard Boubat, one of the classic 20th-century Franco photographers that included Henri Cartier-Bresson, Brassaï, Jacques Henri Lartigue and Robert Doisneau. Best known for sumptuously atmospheric black-and-white images deeply rooted in humanism, Boubat mentored Truscello periodically for three years until his death in 1999 at age 75.
“He didn’t sit around and teach me photography; he just taught me about life,” she says. “I would go around and walk with him and take photos. He would talk more about life, love, different things — about reading and seeing people. And respect for people when you shoot. That’s how I learned photography.” Some of her images from those years now hang inside the Paris Las Vegas hotel.
“I made all these photos when I had absolutely no money. I didn’t want to ask my parents for help because it was my choice to be there and I was happy,” she says. “Having money doesn’t add anything extra to experiencing life and art. Money adds nothing to the beauty of what I was able to see and live. One of the photos [I took back then] is of a dog in a cafe. I remember that day, because it was very cold. I did not have enough francs to buy a coffee — this was before the euro. I was standing there pretending to take photos. But I could only take one, because I didn’t have [enough] film.
“It is pretty funny to look at those photos now. I sure wasn’t thinking, ‘I’m going to sell this to the Paris Las Vegas hotel.’ I didn’t have a plan. I was working in Joe Allen’s restaurant in Paris; I didn’t even know I was going to be a photographer. I didn’t know I could make a living doing something that I loved so much.”
Today, whether she is shooting performers like Céline Dion, four former U.S. presidents, Pope Francis or school kids in Ethiopia — where she supports a charity, Tariku & Testa Kids’ Education Through Tennis Development — Truscello’s approach is the same. Which is to say, each shoot is different, offering unique challenges and opportunities.
“You have to feel it out,” she explains. “Even if you are doing a documentary, every time it will be different. You have to find a new approach. But every single shoot is important to me. “Sometimes I will shoot something, and I’ll just think it’s amazing. I don’t care what anybody says. That has been my attitude from the beginning.”
Such attitude is borne not out of conceit, but from a need to remove outside influence from the delicate, personal details of sensibility and awareness that defines any photographer’s images. Truscello’s passion for the art form is evident when she speaks about its history and tradition that informs the philosophical foundation for her work.
“Everyone you are working with is different; I talk to some, and some I just observe and I don’t say a word. I am sensitive to the subject and know what is appropriate for each shoot, that has always been a natural thing for me.”
She says she keeps in mind an important lesson from Boubat that she wants to share with other photographers.
“‘Do-neez,’ he would say, ‘you press the button when the photo belongs to you. You don’t just make a lot of pictures, then make the sign of the cross and pray you get something.’”
“If you have respect for photography it drips into respect for the people you photograph. Respect for human life. For animals. For the world. I think it can make you a sensitive person that sees deeply, differently than other people,” Truscello says. “That’s the beauty of it, we all see the world in a different way, and I’m blessed to be able to share my view.”