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Astonishing fairy tale photos help sick kids enjoy magic moments

After two of her young clients died, photographer Heather Larkin found a way to honor their memories through beautiful photo shoots.
/ Source: TODAY Contributor

Through her photography business, Fairyography, Heather Larkin dresses children in beautiful, make-believe costumes and photographs them playing pretend in fairy tale scenes, dressed up as fairy princesses or storybook characters.

Lexi Haas, 13, has a condition known as kernicterus, which is brain damage caused by her newborn jaundice. "Kids with kernicterus have typical or above average brain functioning, but are trapped in bodies that don't work," said Lexi's mom, Susan. "She can't walk or talk, sit up on her own, or hold anything but she is brilliant. She loves reading, especially fantasy, so this was such a marvelous escape into a fantasy world for her."Heather Larkin | Fairyography

But after two of her clients later died — one of pediatric brain cancer and one of a heart condition — the Georgia-based photographer realized that the greatest gift she could give families struggling with childhood illness or trauma was a set of photos that captured their child’s beauty and innocence.

Natasha Nolan has two daughters -- Piper, 4, and Reese, 2. Piper was born with down syndrome, and had several holes in her heart, which were repaired through open heart surgery when she was just 4 months old. "Piper was nominated (for a Memorial Princess photo shoot) by a friend and we are so grateful for the experience," said Nolan. "Piper's sister joined in the photo shoot and both girls loved the experience -- getting to dress up like little princesses and run around the botanical gardens. I will hold onto this experience for a long time and have beautiful photos of both of my children to keep forever."Heather Larkin | Fairyography

So Larkin created the Sabina Hartley-Burke and Ava Jane Gibson Memorial Princess Sessions, a yearly contest she holds to find families to gift with her images. Each August, friends and family members nominate children who have a medical or genetic condition, or have suffered trauma or abuse, to win a photo session, print package and photo book, donated by Larkin in memory of her former clients.

Audrey Strickland has a rare form of polycystic kidney disease that has left her parents with constant concerns about her kidneys failing or her developing kidney cancer. "I look at these photos and I see a happy little girl. I don't see her disease," said Audrey's mom, Courtney. "Audrey was given the opportunity to be exactly what she's supposed to be right now -- a 4-year-old with no worries and a little fairy princess wish come true."Heather Larkin | Fairyography

“When Sabina died, it was heartbreaking for me. I attended her funeral and sent images (of my shoot with her) for her parents to use in the service. They sent me a note later on that said, ‘You will never know how much these images mean to us — they’re all we have left of her,’” Larkin told TODAY Parents. “As heartbreaking as it was for me — it was worse for her parents. And, I realized it’s worse for those people who go through all of this and have nothing to remember from the happy times with their child.”

8-year-old Chloe Akridge was born with down syndrome and was diagnosed with AML leukemia at age 2. Chloe has been in remission for 5 years. "The photo shoot came at a time when we needed inspiration. We had just finished our 6 month hospital stay and her hair was just coming back," said Chloe's mom, Stacie Akridge. "It was fun for Chloe being a princess when she did not feel like one."Heather Larkin | Fairyography

Rachele Gibson’s daughter, Ava Jane, is also honored through Larkin’s Memorial Princess Sessions. Gibson says her daughter suffered from a congenital heart defect, and passed away a few months after her third birthday.

Rachel Gibson's daughter, Ava Jane, is one of the two children that inspired Larkin to start her Memorial Princess photo sessions."She would have been 9 years old this year, and I miss her every day," said Gibson. "Having beautiful pictures of her brings me some comfort on days when I miss her more."Heather Larkin | Fairyography

“She died unexpectedly and suddenly, shortly after the photographs were taken,” said Gibson. “I am so grateful for all of the photographs I have that remind me of her infectious smile and the mischievous look in her eye. I have (one of the photos) hanging in my bedroom and I look at it every day when I lay down to sleep and when I wake up.”

This past August marked Larkin’s sixth year of holding the contest. Larkin says she cries over every nomination essay submitted, and that choosing a grand prize winner is never easy. Because of how many touching stories she receives each year, she also offers a photo session and a print credit to each of the families who qualify.

"Hannah was born with a severe, partial midline cleft lip and palate. We later found out that her cleft was caused by a rare brain disorder called holoprosenceplaly," said Heather Matthews of her 8-year-old daughter. "We are blessed that despite her challenges she is currently very healthy. Her beautiful smile is one-of-a-kind and we are so excited to be chosen and have Heather capture it."Heather Larkin | Fairyography

“As upset as I am that they have to deal with what they’re going through, I also enjoy meeting every single one of them,” said Larkin. “There’s not a kid I’ve met yet who whines about it. They never sit there and think, ‘Why me?’ They are so thankful for what they do have, and love every little piece of life they have. They have the biggest faith — I don’t know how these kids have such big hearts after the pain they’ve had to put up with.”

Faith Fowler is now 9 years old, and was born with a rare chromosome deletion. "There is no name for it, and and lot of questions are left unanswered," said Faith's mom, Brandy. "That is why Faith's Fairyography pictures are so priceless to my family and I -- we may not know what tomorrow holds, but the memories of our Sunshine on that day hang on our walls."Heather Larkin | Fairyography

Anna Terrell’s daughter, Marti Love, 12, was diagnosed with a brain tumor at age 6, and has endured 14 surgeries and extensive treatment through the years since her diagnosis. Currently in a wheelchair and suffering vision impairments due to the tumor, Terrell says her daughter is still the most thoughtful, caring, joyful person she knows.

Anna Terrell's daughter, Marti Love, was diagnosed with a brain tumor at the age of 6. Now 12, Marti Love has had 14 surgeries and extensive treatment to battle the tumor. "As a child who has fought hard for her life, this opportunity was a great time for her to just be a happy, carefree child," said Terrell.Heather Larkin | Fairyography

Marti Love was a recent winner of a Memorial Princess Session, something her mom calls an “incredible gift.”

“During the shoot, personally, it was a treat for me to watch Marti Love be silly, enjoy twirling around and get pampered,” said Terrell. “She loves to dress up, put on make-up, and get her hair fixed, so each aspect of Fairyography was a total gift to her and could not have been given to her at a better time.”

Magen Ferland, 12, was born with an extremely rare chromosomal condition, and has been diagnosed with cerebral palsy, autism, sensory processing disorder and nonverbal seizures. "No matter how many challenges she has faced, she loves life," said Magen's mom, Beth Ferland. "She has an outgoing personality and is always trying to charm. More than anything she loves being a princess and seeing princesses...Because of Heather, we have beautiful, unforgettable pictures of Magen that show her inner joy and happiness."Heather Larkin | Fairyography

Larkin says she loves pampering her tiny clients, and has plans to continue holding her yearly contest as long as there’s a need.

April Foust says her daughter' Gabby, 10, felt like a princess at her photo shoot. Gabby has mitochondrial disease, dysautonomia, autism, global developmental delay and is non-verbal. "The pictures captured her beautiful spirit. She was not expected to look at the camera or pose, instead she was just able to be herself and the end result was amazing," said Foust.Heather Larkin | Fairyography

“It’s about making them feel beautiful and loved, no matter what they’re going through and no matter who they are,” said Larkin. “It’s about making them know that, no matter what’s going on, they are loved and they are wanted.”