On Feb. 25, 2012, 7-year-old Domenic Garufi arrived at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia for his monthly treatment for Crohns Colitis disease, a chronic condition affecting the gastrointestinal tract.
Next to his hospital bed sat a laptop. Unbeknownst to Domenic, that day’s treatment—a roughly six-hour process involving tight blood pressure cuffs, multiple tubes and often painful infusions of medication—would also include a trip to Canada.
The week before, Domenic’s father, an avid Google+ user, connected with Canadian photographer John Butterill in one of the site’s chat rooms. Butterill, of Kawartha Lakes, Ontario, offered to give the hospitalized child a break from the monotony of his treatment. Armed with his iPhone and Nikon camera, the photographer took Domenic on an hour-long virtual tour around Rosedale, Ontario. Since then, Butterill has hosted many more photo tours through the organization he founded, Virtual Photo Walks—a volunteer project allowing people to virtually interact with smartphone-enabled photographers worldwide.
“It was the most amazing thing I’d ever seen,” said Frank Garufi, Domenic’s father. “Domenic couldn’t take his eyes off the computer. He suddenly wasn’t in a hospital bed, hooked up to monitors. He was in Canada with John.”
Using a special adapter to mount an iPhone on his camera, Butterill walked around snowy Ontario that day, showing Domenic redwood trees, a dam with beavers, an interesting piece of old logging machinery. The 7-year-old watched the screen attentively with his father, conversing with the photographer through video chat and laughing when Butterill stopped to talk with a group of snowmobilers. “Every time [Domenic] got sleepy, I’d put the camera down and do jumping jacks for him,” Butterill said. “We just goofed around.”
The morning after Domenic’s tour, Butterill and Garufi chatted again on Google+ and decided the virtual photo walk concept could expand to help anyone unable to get out and see the world. They collaborated on a name for the project and within three hours launched the Virtual Photo Walks page on Google+. The free service offers a social good for people who need it most, said Garufi, a network engineer who remains active in spreading the word about the organization.
Since founding Virtual Photo Walks, Butterill has coordinated more than 60 walks guided by photographers in Australia, Rome, Germany and other places hopeful virtual tourists ask him to visit. Japan and the Grand Canyon are frequent requests. Photographers use cameras, smartphones and video chat to stream live, first-person photo shoots to people unable to experience the sites themselves—mostly the disabled, homebound and hospitalized. One to three new tours are hosted in different locations every week.
“The idea is that the photographer becomes someone else’s arms and legs,” Butterill said. “And it’s not a numbers game for us. … If we get just one person participating in a photo walk one day, to me, that’s enough.”
Virtual Photo Walk participants currently number in the hundreds, from elderly nursing home residents to bedridden Multiple Sclerosis sufferers, hospitalized children and homebound people from all locations and walks of life. Participants connect with the photographer through a Google+ account and may converse with him or her throughout the walk, requesting the camera move in a particular direction or asking the photographer to snap something especially meaningful or eye-catching. Later, the photographer emails the pictures to the participant.
In partnership with the Veterans United Network, Virtual Photo Walks also reaches out to aging and disabled veterans by taking them on virtual trips to see their memorials in Washington, DC. Volunteers use Google+ hangouts to provide virtual tours of Pearl Harbor, the beaches of Normandy, France, and the site of the D-Day Invasion. Veterans can talk with fellow veterans, see their memorials and ask questions about them in real time. The service is free and open to any veteran unable to fly.
Terri Elliott’s father, Robert Malone, is a WWII veteran who participated in the first veteran’s tour hosted last fall by Virtual Photo Walks and Veterans United Network. She recalls how her father, disabled and in a wheelchair, held her hand with tears streaming down his face while he watched the photographer walk the beaches of Normandy: “We could hear the waves coming up on the beach,” she said. “It was monumental for Dad. Then after the tour, people came on to thank him personally for his service. He realized he was not forgotten.”
Butterill stresses that Virtual Photo Walks—a non-profit run entirely on donations, his own investments and the volunteer efforts of nearly 300 photographers—is defined by its tagline, “To Know, To Care, To Act.” The Google+ page for Virtual Photo Walks provides information for photographers interested in volunteering, along with a how-to guide for setting up the streaming rig. Ultimately, he says, the organization aspires to help people become explorers.
“People everywhere are in isolation because of a disability, death of a spouse, or any number of factors that cause isolation, both physical and mental,” Butterill said. “But that’s what we’re combating with Virtual Photo Walks: isolation. And we’re making an impact.”