Photographer Transforms Kid Cancer Warriors Into Superheros
Not all superheros wear capes, but photographer Jason Hook has made sure some of Brevard County’s most heroic children felt what it was like to transform into their favorite crusaders.
Looking for a way to give back to the community, Hook started Operation Superhero in 2018. The father of two knew he wanted to use his skills as a photographer and work with kids, but he was struggling to find the right avenue. That is when he came across the work of California photographer Josh Rossi, who used photography and photo editing to transform his daughter into Wonder Woman.
“I knew right away this was a way I could help kids who needed it,” Hook said. “I could uplift them and make them feel better. But the first challenge was finding an organization to partner with.”
For his first sessions, Hook partnered with Puzzlebox Academy, a school for students with autism and developmental delays. He transformed two students into Black Panther and Wonder Woman.
Hook donates his time, working pro bono for about a week on each photo after the shoot is done. He spends hours editing the images to perfect the final product. After unveiling the first photos at Puzzlebox for family and friends, he knew he had found his niche.
“Before we did the reveal, the mother of one of the students I photographed warned me he might not react because he doesn’t really show emotions or excitement,” Hook recalled. “But when he saw the poster, his eyes lit up and he started clapping his hands. He was so excited. His reaction meant so much to me, and not only did I make the kid happy, but I saw the mom’s face light up, as well.”
A chance encounter with Natasha Duran, executive director of Candlelighters of Brevard, led to a new partnership. Candlelighters is a nonprofit offering both financial and emotional support to children with cancer and their families.
This time, the program grew in scale. Hook photographed six children and transformed them into their favorite superheroes while Candlelighters planned a red carpet style event. It was such a success that Candlelighters added the Superhero Party and Photoshoot Experience to their budget as a recurring program.
“Candlelighters really took it to the next level for their kids,” Hook said. “Not only did we do the pictures, and they helped fund the costumes, but they partnered with Premier Theaters at The Oaks for a whole big event. Premiere Oaks gave us an entire theater where they played movie shorts created with behind-the-scenes footage shot by 142 Productions. Then we unveiled the movie posters.”
The program serves a dual purpose for Candlelighters, as it both builds up the children battling cancer and their families while helping them raise much needed funds.
“I think storytelling with visuals is so powerful,” said Candlelighters Marketing Manager Carolyn Cook. ”When we have these visuals of our children being center stage and spotlighted for the true superheroes that they transformed into in order to beat this diagnosis and get through their treatments, it shares their story in a light that people really resonate with a lot more. It gives us a platform to share what these kids are going through.”
Hook helped then 9-year-old Lily Hilborn transform into Captain Marvel with his first Candlelighters photo shoot in 2019. Lily was in the midst of treatment for a brain tumor on her optic nerve. She was recovering from surgery and her blond hair was still growing out, but Hook’s childlike demeanor immediately put her at ease.
“It was a phenomenal experience,” said Lily’s mother, Maggie Hilborn. “Jason is very welcoming, kind, and caring. He treated Lily as if she was his own daughter. He was so good with her and he made her so happy. The experience is something you will never forget. I will always remember that moment and the smile on her face. It was beautiful.”
Lily is now 11 and in remission, but her Operation Superhero experience is something her family will never forget. The program allows the whole family to get involved. Brothers, sisters, and parents all get their own superhero t-shirts. They all participate in the photo shoot and the reveal party — the child as the superhero and the family as the Justice League.
“When you have a child who has cancer, they don’t get to do much,” Hilborn said. “They are stuck in the hospital, stuck at home, they are just stuck. This gave her an opportunity to feel normal, to feel like a kid. It gave her a chance to forget about what she was struggling with.”
Of course, the highlight of the party is the unveiling of movie posters.
“Once they get that poster, they — for sometimes the first time — see what they have been strengthened into as a warrior, as someone that people look up to,” Cook said. “The kids don’t always understand how much they inspire others with their story and their battle.”
Hook said it all makes him feel lucky to be doing what he does.
“I work with big companies and I get to do a lot of big commercial work, and this is a way for me to give back,” Hook said. “Some of these kids have never gotten to see themselves as a hero. It brings me joy to see them happy.”
Jason Hook Photography
Like all good superheroes, Hook did not act alone. Additional support and services for Operation Superhero provided by:
- Poster layout/design: Nevin Flinchbaugh & Kelly Riese
- Costume designers: Megan Pinto, Ashley Bell, Jeremy Rippy
- Videography: 142 Productions, Instagram @142productions
- Behind-the-scenes photography: Acevedo Photography, Instagram @acevedophotography
- Make-up artist: Darcy Manning, Instagram @makeupbydarcymm
Candlelighters of Brevard
- Donation checks or money orders can be mailed to:
Candlelighters of Brevard, Inc.
436 Fifth Ave., Suite 1
Indialantic, FL 32903
- Online giving is available at candlelightersofbrevard.org