When you wish upon a star

Hannah Doucet explores the commodification of childhood illness

More than half of Make-A-Wish recipients choose to visit a Disney park. Winnipeg artist Hannah Doucet was one of them. (Supplied photo)

Ask a child their dream destination, and it’ll likely boil down to two options: Disneyland or Walt Disney World.

It may come as no surprise, then, that more than half of all critically ill children afforded trips or experiences by wish-granting agencies choose to visit a Disney park. Organizations like the Make-A-Wish Foundation have become synonymous with the theme parks.

But what is it about the Disney experience that makes it so alluring to children who may not live to see another wish fulfilled? In A Wish Stays with You, Winnipeg-born photographer and visual artist Hannah Doucet reflects on, and satirizes, her own experience as a critically ill child with a mouse-eared dream in her heart.

“When I was 10, I was just finishing up treatment for lymphoblastic lymphoma, and I received a wish from a wish-granting agency, and I wished to visit Disney World. That initial life experience is what sparked the idea for the show,” Doucet says.

The solo exhibition, which combines multiple disciplines into a holistic experience, is displayed at the Platform Centre for Photographic and Visual Arts from now until Oct. 22. Stark photography, sculpturing and videography give a glimpse at the thin veneer shrouding corporatized wish fulfillment.

“That’s something I’m really fascinated in,” Doucet says. “I think, culturally, we just revere Disney, and they’re such a large creator of media for children and for adults. I think there’s potentially internal rationales within wish-granting agencies to get kids to visit Disney just because it’s a very achievable wish, but it still has that element of magic and fantasy.

“It really started with thinking about that space of Give Kids the World Village (GKTWV) and the way fantasy and illness coexist in that space.”

GKTWV, founded in 1986, is a non-profit resort in Kissimmee, Fla. that provides accommodation for critically ill children and their families as they visit Disney World.

Doucet, who identifies primarily as a student of the photographic arts, features a series of shots in the exhibition closely examining GKTWV and its fantastical structures, taken on location.

“They isolate different elements of these spaces. They kind of showcase the materiality and façade of these fantasy spaces. I wanted to highlight that in some of the images. The weirdness, the loose failures of the space are kind of the best part for me,” Doucet says.

She is quick to note that the exhibit is not a condemnation of the charitable tradition. Instead, Doucet hopes to provide a more nuanced perspective to an otherwise typically sanguine story.

“I think that wish-granting agencies do come from a good place, and they are doing something quite beautiful,” she says. “It’s nice that sick kids have their wishes come true, but it’s also a little more complex than that ... most people don’t take the time or have the desire to look at that with a more critical eye.”

Doucet points to public research on breast cancer and the use of the emblematic pink ribbon in corporate marketing as a ubiquitous comparison.

“There’s been a lot more public research around the pink ribbon, around how mainstream large corporations exploit that image to sell products. I think you can look at that with a similar lens for childhood cancer, which is my own experience, or for other childhood experiences of illness,” she says.

Born in Winnipeg and located in the city for most of her life, Doucet is proud to be able to bring an ambitious art project years in the making to her hometown.

“It felt really special to be able to show at Platform and be able to show in Winnipeg for the first time publicly,” Doucet says.

Meganelizabeth Diamond, artistic director of the Platform Centre, was inspired to connect with Doucet after viewing documentation shots of the project, originally her master’s program thesis.

“Hannah was one of our photography award winners back in 2017. We, as an organization, have supported Hannah’s practice from early on and are continuing to do so,” Diamond says in an email to The Uniter.

Platform commissioned Emily Doucet, Hannah’s sister, to write a review for the exhibition, which is now posted online. A printed brochure designed by John Patterson is also available, Diamond says.

If there is one thing that Doucet hopes people walk away from the show with, it’s food for thought.

“If people can see the complexity within it and still see the beauty and the capitalist critique within it, that’s exciting to me,” she says. I think the work can be appreciated in a lot of different ways. I think you can appreciate it visually and aesthetically and also dive deeper. I hope some people take the time to dive deeper, as well.”

A Wish Stays with You runs until Oct. 22. Platform Centre is located at Suite 121- 100 Arthur St. in the Artspace Building.

Published in Volume 77, Number 05 of The Uniter (October 6, 2022)

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