One cold winter day in 2011, John Butterill was out for his daily 40 minute walk near his home in Lindsay, Ontario, Canada. During this walk he was holding his camera in one hand and his phone in the other. All of a sudden, he looked at the two devices in a new way that would instantly change the course of his life.
John took his hands and placed them on top of each other, with his cell phone on top and his camera on the bottom. “I stopped and went ‘oh my God. So simple,’” he remembers. “Anybody I’m talking to can see exactly what I’m seeing. How cool!”
With a few simple tools, John was able to attach his cell phone to his camera and a tripod, which he could then use to broadcast whatever he was seeing to other people over the Internet. This could be done using the at the time new Google+ network, which John had started using to participate in Hangouts with people all over the world.
Initially, John envisioned using the technology as a solution for professionals like art directors to remotely visit locations that they were supervising but were unable to visit physically. With a background as a freelance photographer and marketing professional, this was a natural place to start; however, after a conversation with a friend, the idea would soon take an entirely new direction.
A Life-Changing Photo Walk
Frank Garufi Jr.’s son, Domenic, was in the hospital battling Crohns Colitis disease in early 2012. John, who was a friend of Frank’s, offered to distract Domenic from the unpleasant treatment he was receiving by taking him on a ‘photo walk’ using his new video streaming contraption. The photo walk turned out to be exactly what Domenic needed, distracting him from painful medication and being confined to a hospital bed.
“Every time Domenic got tired and was going to fall asleep, I was out in front of the camera doing jumping jacks and acting like a clown entertaining him,” John fondly recalls.
After the photo walk ended, Frank was so moved that he wrote this post and published it by the time John got home from his walk. In it, he writes a glowing review of John and how much his generosity meant to both Frank and Domenic:
“John Butterill is nothing less than a saint in my eyes,” Frank wrote. “He brought a TON of joy to my son today, on what otherwise would have been, another excruciating day for him!”
“That post went viral worldwide on Google+ and my phone never stopped going off with notifications,” John explains, “and my life changed right there. So the next day I said ‘if I can help one, I can help them all!”
Helping the Disabled
Inspired by how he was able to help make Domenic’s experience better, John immediately got to work turning his idea into reality. Within a few days he registered the domain name www.virtualphotowalks.org built his website, and registered the corresponding Google+ and Facebook pages.
Over the next six months, John and his team of volunteer photographers conducted photo walks all over the world so disabled people would get a chance to enjoy these places as well. Whether it was a canoe ride across a lake, an African safari or listening to the waves on a beach, people confined to their homes or stuck in hospitals could now travel with people to whichever locations they wanted to see most.
Google Takes Notice
One day, John received a phone call from someone at Google. Not understanding and thinking that it was a telemarketer, he hung up. When they called back, he realized that it wasn’t spam but was actually representatives from the tech giant. They were blown away by Virtual Photo Walks, telling John that he was using their technology in ways that they had never thought of.
Shortly afterwards, they sent a team of 15 filmmakers to film John for a week. They even sent camera crew to other participants in the organization across the globe to collect footage as well. Once shooting was done, they told John that they were unsure when the video would be released or even if it would ever see the light of day.
Six months went by and John didn’t hear anything. Then he received another call and was told, “we’re releasing the movie tomorrow. You better hold onto your hat.”
The next day, Google posted this video:
The video quickly exploded in popularity on Google+ and beyond, bringing a level of awareness to Virtual Photo Walks that John never imagined it getting in his wildest dreams.
“They’re good people at Google. They really do care,” John explains. “They gave me my start. We’ve got 5 million followers because of them.”
Keeping It All Going
These days, John keeps mostly to his home office where he keeps Virtual Photo Walks running. He organizes the photo walks that his 300 photographers take participants on all over the world, to places that they never thought they would be able to see firsthand.
In the process, he has cultivated a supportive community that provides a beacon of hope for those who are in very difficult situations. John has witnessed the joy that these walks bring to people many times, as well as how it can help those going through particularly dark periods.
“If someone is very depressed, we might be the one little thing that stops them from doing something, because they know they’d be letting their community down and that there is something good out there,” John explains. “There are people that care and have come into their lives and said, ‘where do you want to go?’”
All too often, the disabled can be forgotten about — especially those who are confined to their homes or hospitals. Virtual Photo Walks finds these individuals, welcomes them to its community, and gives them something to look forward to and escape with.
“The disabled people are the forgotten people,” John explains. “People don’t talk about an 80 year old woman that’s been disabled and trapped in her bed for the last four years. Or somebody who’s dying from MS, lupus, is in terrible pain, or the 20 year old girl that’s got immune deficiency disease and can’t get out of her house.”
Though things like travel videos and Google Street View allow people to see different parts of the world, John maintains that Virtual Photo Walks offers an experience that they can’t get anywhere else. Through YouTube and Google Hangouts for public events and zoom.us for private walks, Virtual Photo Walks is able to reach anyone with a computer and offer them a one-of-a-kind escape.
“It’s realtime interactive engagement with real people. The difference is that somebody cares.”
Virtual Photo Walks Inc is a 501c3 public charity in the USA. Click here to donate.