So Many Angels is a nonprofit organization based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania that uses photography to help transform children battling cancer and other serious illnesses into whatever they want to be when they grow up. We were lucky enough to catch up with Matt Meiers, So Many Angels’ founder, to learn about his photographic process.
Matt, what drew you to photography? When did you begin making images?
I had always enjoyed taking photos to look back on and help remember times and places, but what really got me interested in photographing people was when I was lucky enough to have a headshot session with Peter Hurley. Before that moment, I had never liked the way I looked in photos. I couldn't believe the way I felt after I saw the photo he took of me. - Not only was I not ashamed of the photo, I actually loved it. I wanted to learn how to make people feel the way that I did from that one image Peter took. That’s a powerful feeling.
What motivated you to create So Many Angels? What was your intention in beginning the project?
I was photographing a local Make-A-Wish fundraising event and there was a woman in her mid-30s speaking. She grew up in Miami Beach, Florida, and was sick as a child. She had her wish granted by the foundation when she was fourteen. Her wish was to go snow skiing. She said that when she went, it was the best week of her life. She didn't feel sick that week. She was so distracted by doing things that healthy kids do that she didn't have even a second to think about being sick.
It was around that same time a friend of mine had shared an incredible photo of a young boy in a Superman costume, and something just clicked. I didn't know what I wanted to call it, but the seed for So Many Angels was definitely planted that day.
How do you facilitate highly produced shoots in small hospital spaces?
I don't need a whole lot of space for the photos. I can work with a small area to set up, so a playroom at the hospital works great. I have even put together sessions in subject’s homes, and hotel rooms at Shutterfest!
When you’re prepping for a shoot - what Profoto equipment are you packing in your kit? What draws you to the equipment you choose?
I always pack two B1’s and two A1’s. My main light is usually a B1 with a OCF 2x3 Softbox. Following that, I’ll use some combination of the A1s (with or without CTO gels) and the other B1 for kickers. One of the great things about working with the Profoto gear I use is that there are no cords. This is a huge advantage if you're going into a space where you're never sure where electrical outlets are located… or if they're even there. It's also great to not have to worry about the kids (or even myself) tripping over cords!
Do you have an approach to lighting that you frequent?
When I photograph sessions for So Many Angels, my goal is to capture the cleanest, best image I can so that the retouchers I work with have all the pieces they need for their composite work. In my personal work, I try find the best way to to showcase my subject how others see them. I want my subjects to see themselves in a way that they never could in a mirror.
With a portfolio of portraits under your belt, how is the work from So Many Angels being received?
The response so far has been nothing short of amazing. We're working with many amazing people and several incredibly supportive companies. We can't thank them enough!
What is your favorite element of working with children and their families on these photoshoots?
Watching the children's faces light up when they first realize what they look like all dressed up when I show them the back of the camera is amazing. I always try to watch the parents during the photo sessions as well. I want to see the parents watching their kid be a kid, not a child fighting a life-threatening illness. If I can give those parents 15 minutes of a "normal" normal, that's a bonus. I love when the parents send me videos of their child opening their canvas print after the shoot. The looks on their faces is heartwarming.
Where do you see this project three years from now?
I’d like to see us working in more cities, serving as many families as we can. I want to grow So Many Angels the right way, for the long term. In my wildest dreams, I'd love for photography to be only a single division of what So Many Angels is and does.
Most people think that the "Angels" in So Many Angels are the kids, but it's really not. The Angels are all of the people who have helped already and are helping me get this project moving to where it needs to be.