Kids with cancer live their wildest dreams in stunning fantasy photos

/ Source: TODAY

For children fighting for their lives, imagination is far more than just a fun tool used to while away boring classes or escape humdrum winter days — it's a chance to escape a sometimes terrifying reality. And photographer Jonathan Diaz, father to four healthy kids of his own, believes that's worth commemorating.

Sophie has cancer, Down syndrome, and a heart condition. "She just loves to read books," explained Diaz. "So I thought, well, let's just make her imagination come alive while she's reading the book. She had a great time posing and smiling."Courtesy Anything Can Be

His new book, "True Heroes: A Treasury of Modern-day Fairy Tales Written by Best-Selling Authors," is a collection of photographs and stories by renowned authors such as Brandon Mull, Shannon Hale, Ally Condie, Jennifer Nielsen.

Ellie had big dreams of becoming a baker. "I wanted that image to be very whimsical," said Diaz. "I didn't just want her to become a baker; I wanted her to being able to do amazing things far beyond her wildest dreams. She not only created all these amazing baked goods, but she also was able to magically balance them and look like something out of a Dr. Seuss book."Courtesy Anything Can Be

Diaz, who's based in Salt Lake City, Utah, was inspired to photograph children with cancer after creating fun, whimsical photographs using his own children as models.

Since this photo was taken, Ethan tragically passed away. But the image was important to him. "He wanted to be both Batman and a doctor," said Diaz. "His mom said he had just felt such a connection with his own doctors. He knew that they were trying to save his life. He had so much empathy for them, and he wanted to save other people's lives, too."Courtesy Anything Can Be

"I started really getting into this creative, collage-type of photography about three years ago, asking my kids to imagine living their dreams, and sort of recreating that imagination through my lens," he told TODAY.com.

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"After a while, I thought, 'Why not give this project to kids with cancer, and create a special way for them to live their own dreams?'"

"Marley's actually older," Diaz told TODAY. "She got cancer when she was younger, and then it went into remission. Her dream was to play soccer in college, and last year, she got a scholarship to do just that. I wanted to include her to show the other kids that some of these people's dreams really do come true."Courtesy Anything Can Be

The project is called "Anything Can Be," and it's what led to the publication of the "True Heroes" book. And while every photograph holds a special place in Diaz's heart, some are a bit more precious to him.

Caimbre is from California, and, like most of the other children pictured in these photos, she had cancer. But she fought it and beat it. "We just loved that, and we also loved the idea that she wanted to be a mermaid. She was pretty funny," said Diaz. "When we went down there to take her pictures, she became a little model, posing and laying on the ground."Courtesy Anything Can Be

"Jordan, who's featured in the 'Jordan in Wonderland' shot, passed away a few weeks after we took the photos," he remembered. "She really wanted to be part of the project when she was sent home to be on hospice. Her mom called us, and we rushed an Alice in Wonderland dress, and we went to her home.

Cami's cancer was thought to be in remission, but she relapsed and had to have a bone marrow transplant. Her miraculous recovery has inspired Diaz. "Out of thousands of people, there was one guy who happened to be on the donor registry and he matched her," the photographer explained. "They were able to do this bone marrow transplant that saved her life. She is now cancer-free and doing very well."Courtesy Anything Can Be

"She was really sick and in a lot of pain, and it took three people to have her stand up," he continued. "I kept telling her just to sit down. You know, you don't have to stand! But she was absolutely determined. That's resilience."

"This was at the beginning of the shoot," Diaz said about Jordan, pictured here in "Wonderland." "This was before she really wanted to stand up. I remember kneeling down next to her and saying, 'Listen, I know we're in your living room and there are lights and cameras. But if you can imagine with me that you're in Wonderland, I'm going to put you there through photography. It was just one of those moments where I felt she really, truly escaped."Courtesy Anything Can Be

So, what goes into creating one of these epic photographs? "Of course, I take the images of the kids in a fun photo shoot. That's one aspect," Diaz explained. "For the shoot, we really try to go all out and allow them to imagine their dreams.

Breeann was a competitive dancer, and was diagnosed with bone cancer when she was a bit older than some of the other children pictured here. After a few procedures, she was told that she'd never be able to run or dance again, and that it'd take two years for her to learn to walk. "Well, she learned to walk within a year," said Diaz. "And that's pretty amazing. I really wanted to turn her into a dancer again. If we can do it through art, you know, maybe someday it could happen in real life."Courtesy Anything Can Be

"Then, I take a bunch of elements — for instance, photos of fire, and photos of water, and photos of a building, as well as the initial photos of the kids — and I combine it all together in Photoshop."

He approaches each image the way one might a fine-art painting, spending approximately 15-20 hours per photo. It's a lot of time, and he's not getting paid for any of it. But he says each time he gets to present a child with the photograph, he feels gratified beyond compare.

Jake wanted to be a Motocross racer. "He was just so fun," said Diaz. "This stuff brings you close to people that you'd never get to know otherwise."Courtesy Anything Can Be

"I think the one thing I am inclined to accomplish with this book and project is to raise as much awareness as possible," he told TODAY. "I really see it as an opportunity to give children hope. Hospitals and other medical centers can give it to sick kids, for example, and give them a sense of renewed optimism. That's my real goal."

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