Anne Geddes photographs child survivors: "A total inspiration"

Beloved photographer Anne Geddes is known for her iconic, whimsical photos of chubby babies dressed up as flowers, animals, fairies and other creatures. But the Australian-born photographer recently turned her lens to a subject that's very unlike her typical work.

Her latest large-scale project, "Protecting Our Tomorrows," is a series of 15 portraits of children and young adults who are survivors of meningococcal disease, a severe and aggressive bacterial infection which affects the lining of the brain and spinal cord and is often fatal.

"I've been photographing for 30 years," Geddes told CBS News. "And I think this would be the most significant project that I've ever done."

For survivors, meningococcal disease -- which strikes about 1,200 children in the U.S. each year -- can be devastating. Patients often suffer septicemia, or blood poisoning, and must have limbs amputated to save their lives. In addition to the disfigurement of losing fingers, arms or legs, survivors frequently endure lifelong health problems including loss of hearing, sight and cognitive function.

Though many people have never heard of meningococcal disease, Geddes knew about it. As a young mother, Geddes said a child in her community fell ill with meningococcal disease and eventually lost both arms and legs.

It was one of the reasons Geddes felt compelled to say yes to the project when she was approached a few years ago by Novartis Vaccines and the Confederation of Meningitis Organizations to take the portraits of young survivors from all over the world.

Initially, the 58-year-old photographer said she wasn't certain how she would visually tell each child's profound story, as well as the universal narrative of the devastating disease.

"I wanted the images to be timeless," Geddes told CBS News. "The vast majority of the 15 survivors [photographed] don't have legs. So I had to find a way to portray them, to give them a sense of strength and their own sense of individuality."

She added: "I wanted to portray them as beautiful."

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Photographer Anne Geddes at a shoot for "Protecting Our Tomorrows: Portraits of Meningococcal Disease."
Courtesy of Anne Geddes

Geddes found her creative inspiration in classic Greco-Roman statues of gods and goddesses. Many of the children posed atop pillars, "because a pillar is strong," said Geddes. "It turned them into sculptures."

She ended up capturing the beauty, strength and spirit of subjects ranging in age from 9 months to 25 years old.

Jamie Schanbaum, one of the 15 survivors photographed by Geddes, was 20 years old when she was rushed to her local hospital in Austin, Texas. As is typical for meningococcal disease, Schanbaum's illness started out with flu-like symptoms. But by the time she arrived in the emergency room she could barely walk.

Two days later, Schanbaum, now 26, received the grim diagnosis. Her illness progressed to an infection that required a sedation coma, and eventually, amputation of both her legs below the knees, as well as nearly all her fingers on both hands. She was in the hospital for seven months.

"I saw my limbs go from red to purple to black," recalled Schanbaum, who graduated from college a year ago. "I consider myself lucky," she said. "I could have become blind or deaf."

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Jamie Schanbaum, a survivor of meningococcal disease, poses for Geddes.
Courtesy of Anne Geddes

A few days before Schanbaum's photo shoot, which took place in Toronto, Geddes was still trying to determine the best way to tell her story. She visited a props house to prepare for the shoot, and she spotted a bust of Helen of Troy, the Greek warrior princess considered the most beautiful woman in the world.

"I thought wouldn't it be amazing for a beautiful 25-year-old woman to be in this image with Helen of Troy -- two gorgeous, beautiful women together," said Geddes. "We had to construct a seat that went up over the top of Helen of Troy for Jamie to sit on. It was complicated getting her up there as well. When she walked into the shoot, I thought oh my God, it's serendipity, you are just so beautiful, and she has such an amazing spirit to her."

Schanbaum saw participating in Geddes' project as an extension of the work she now does to raise awareness about meningococcal disease. A few years ago, she founded The Jamie Project, an organization that provides information about the importance of vaccinating children for the disease. In 2009, she helped to pass Senate Bill 819, the Jamie Schanbaum Act, which requires meningitis vaccinations for all college students in Texas.

Dr. Paul Lee, a specialist in pediatric infectious diseases at Winthrop Pediatric Specialty Center in Mineola, New York, said the vaccine is essential because meningococcal disease is so aggressive. "Medically, once it happens, the disease can strike you so quickly. Once you recognize you're so sick you can be at death's door already," he told CBS News.

Geddes echoed his concern. "You need to recognize the symptoms because they hide behind flu. You know your child better than you know anybody else," she said. "You need to act very quickly."

Symptoms may include fever, vomiting, headache, stiff neck, sensitivity to light, and drowsiness or altered consciousness. A purple rash is a sign emergency medical help is needed. A child can be deathly ill in just a few hours.

But Geddes believes getting the word out is also about helping to tell the stories of young people who have survived.

"Children, regardless of their age, are capable of delivering really, really powerful messages," she said. "And you know, that's why people relate to my work so much, because of the babies and what they represent and young people and how much they represent the future of mankind.

"With all of the terrible things that are happening in the world today... they are our chance at redemption, they are our chance at new beginnings, and these young people -- these 15 young people in this series -- have been a total inspiration for me. It was just a gift to me as a photographer."

Geddes' photo exhibit opens today in Washington, D.C., after showings in Hamburg, Paris and Ottawa. A book of the photos is available to download free on the Apple iBooks store.

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    Jessica Firger covers health and wellness for CBSNews.com