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Giving the disabled and homebound a chance to ‘hike’ a volcano

BY   August 18, 2015 at 2:43 PM EST
Photographer Dominic Phillips leads a virtual tour of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park on the island of Hawaii. Screen grab from Google+

Photographer Dominic Phillips leads a virtual tour of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park on the island of Hawaii. Screen grab from Google+

For the sick or disabled, the world outside can feel out of reach. For millions of Americans who are bound to their homes, the idea of strolling along the Seine in Paris or hiking the rim of a Hawaiian volcano is a dream.

But a Canadian photographer thinks he can deliver “virtual tours” that are about as close to the real thing as you can get. John Butterill’s non-profit Virtual Photo Walks works by connecting disabled viewers with a network of photographers.

Butterill came up with the idea one winter day when he was out exploring near his home in Kawartha Lakes, Ontario. “My hands were getting cold and I couldn’t carry my phone and camera at same time.” So, he slid his phone in the camera’s hot shoe and mounted it on top. At that moment, he realized the possibilities. “People could see through the phone what I could see through the viewfinder and that’s how it came about.”

Canadian photographer John Butterill delivers “virtual tours” for his non-profit Virtual Photo Walks, which works by connecting disabled viewers with a network of photographers. Photo by Google video

Canadian photographer John Butterill delivers “virtual tours” for his non-profit Virtual Photo Walks, which works by connecting disabled viewers with a network of photographers. Screen grab from Google

The next day, he invited 8-year old Domenic Garufi, a friend’s son who was in the hospital battling Crohns colitis disease, on a “photo walk.” Domenic’s father, Frank Garufi, wrote in a blog post that it was the perfect distraction from painful infusion treatments. “For the hour that John braved the harsh weather conditions … my son didn’t have to worry about blood pressure cuffs squeezing his arm too tight, the uncomfortableness of having tubes stuck through his arm, the drip rate of the medicine “burning” him.”

The viewers are connected to the photographers using Google+ or Zoom video conferencing tools. The photographers take direction from the participants who ask them to snap photos of their choosing.

Even with the wide availability of live streaming apps like Twitter’s Periscope, Butterill says Virtual Photo Walks creates a unique community for people who share something unusual — a sense of isolation. “The seniors and the long term disabled are a kind of like a forgotten element of our society.”

I first learned about Virtual Photo Walks when I was working on a story, airing on the NewsHour tonight, about a palliative care doctor in rural northern California who uses video conferencing technology to help seriously ill patients remain in their homes. The doctor, Michael Fratkin, saw an opportunity to connect his patients with Butterill’s photographers and had just announced a partnership between his organization Resolution Care and Virtual Photo Walks.

“As we face disability or even the approach of our death, many people experience a new way of seeing,” Fratkin said.

Butterill is now working with Fratkin’s patients to create “virtual bucket lists.” “We ask them where they want to go and what they would like to see and we’ll take them there,” Butterill said.

Forty-four-year-old Rich Schlesiger, a former Humboldt County, California, sheriff’s deputy whom we feature in our NewsHour broadcast story, always wanted to go to the pit of a car race track. Now with brain cancer, he stays close to home with his wife and three children. So, Butterill, with some help from Verizon, arranged a virtual visit to an IndyCar race in Milwaukee with race car drivers Juan Pablo Montoya and Helio Castroneves.

Jamie Todd of Floral City, Florida, also an IndyRace fan, tries to catch as many photo walks as he can. Todd has congenital rubella syndrome which causes him extreme pain, exhaustion and other debilitating ailments. “It’s nice for us disabled people to connect with each other and see something we don’t usually get to see. It helps us get our minds off our current situations.”

The experience is equally gratifying for landscape and fine art photographer Karen Hutton. “I’ve been blessed to see, photograph and experience some of the most awe-inspiring places. Sure, I can share them with the world through my word … but getting to actually bring people with me who may never get to see these places in person? That’s what makes me happiest,” she said. “There is nothing like getting to share the real-time (gasp) of Paris, the jewel of Lake Tahoe or the ancient ruins of Hovenweep with the folks who come with me in Virtual Photo Walks. We talk, we laugh … and share incredibly special moments that simply wouldn’t happen any other way.”

Landscape and fine art photographer Karen Hutton's view of Notre Dame in Paris. Photo courtesy of Karen Hutton

Photographer Karen Hutton’s view of Notre Dame in Paris. Photo courtesy of Karen Hutton

Tonight, watch PBS NewsHour’s report on how telemedicine tools can serve critically ill patients in rural communities.

You can participate in a live virtual walk at 1 p.m. EDT Wednesday at Honokohau Harbor Hawaii with photographer Dominic Phillips. Viewers can join by signing up on the Virtual Photo Walks website.

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