Photographing Special Children

Photographing Special Children

I was so honoured when I was asked to write this blog post because this is something that is very close to home for me.

Special needs is a bit long winded, and for the sake of this blog, (and because these kids just are) I would like to occasionally refer to them as ‘Special’.  I have been photographing special kids for almost 21 years, mainly because my eldest daughter is special needs.  She was born with a rare chromosome disorder which was then called 2q-  It has since been given a slightly more technical name of 2q37 Deletion Syndrome.  Twenty one years ago, knowing nothing about taking pictures of special kids, it has been very much a learn-as-I-go process.  Taking pictures of kids can be tricky at the best of times, and with the added challenge of children who may not always understand you, or who might have social difficulties or disabilities, there is a lot of pressure to capture great images while helping your subject feel at ease and comfortable.  I do want to say that Im not an expert. I don’t profess to be. This is simply my own experience, things that I’ve learned during my personal journey so far and I’m happy to share in the hope that it may help others who have the opportunity to shoot special kids.

photographing children with special needs tutorial by Emma Wood

The first thing to get your head around is that all special needs are different. Just as no two kids are alike, nor are special kids.   Every child has their own struggles and obstacles to overcome and every child has their own unique personality.   So before the shoot is scheduled I would advise meeting with the family first,  preferably in their own environment.  Getting to know the family and child and allowing them to become familiar with you will help them to feel comfortable during the shoot and it’s amazing the difference that this makes.  It also helps you as the photographer to know what is expected. You are able to discuss with the parents what obstacles that you might come across and it gives you an insight into the child and their personality.   It’s so worth the time and effort and for me personally, I’ve found getting to know the child firsthand makes the photoshoot that much more fun and rewarding.  Usually after the initial visit the child goes from being apprehensive to excited about the shoot.  Having a good relationship with the parents also plays a big part in a good photo session. You may need them to interpret  their child’s wants, especially if the child is non-verbal so keeping the channel of communication open is important on all sides.  Understanding your client and their family is the first step to a wonderful end result – providing them with images to treasure.

Don’t be scared to ask questions. The parents will appreciate that you will need to do so in order to know what to expect.  Plenty of times I’ve had people tell me that they didn’t want to ask me about Libby for fear of offending me.  I’ve always put them straight that as long as they are respectful and tactful there really isn’t anything that will offend me.  I am much happier when people are upfront and honest if they have a question.

Some special kids will need more time to get to know a stranger.  They need to be able to trust you as a person and if they don’t feel comfortable this may show in the images.  Anything you can do to help them feel comfortable is helpful.  I find a great ice breaker is to show them my equipment/camera;  take a few shots and then look at the images and talk about them together.   The more relaxed and easy going you can be the more at ease they will feel.    Special kids are often misunderstood and all they really want is to be treated like everyone else.  My daughter often told me when she was younger:  “Mummy, I just want to be a regular kid”.  And it used to break my heart.  She was so perfect to me and to hear her sadness and  being helpless to fix it was a bitter pill to swallow.  But it’s also made me very aware that kids with special needs, while they need you to be in tune to their needs/wants etc, ultimately just want you to treat them as you would any other child. I have yet to meet a special child who wants your sympathy.  They don’t want to be singled out as being different; they just want acceptance, as we all do.

photographing children with special needs tips by Emma Wood

I find that the best images of special children come from the more relaxed lifestyle shoots.  Getting the family to interact with the child, much as they would do at home on a daily basis, really brings out the childs true personality and you can end up with some fantastic images.  Find places where the child feels comfortable and shoot there.  Maybe they are happier at home in their room, or maybe they prefer being outside at a particular location.    Find out what their interests/hobbies are and incorporate them into the session.  My daughter works at a Riding for the Disabled Centre and she can talk you under the table about horses.  All I have to do is mention those four legged creatures and she lights up, it’s adorable…and I love to chat to her about it while I’m shooting her.  She soon forgets the camera and just enjoys teaching me (she knows far more then I do about this subject).

Get siblings involved if possible. They often have a special and unique bond with their brother/sister and are great at drawing them into the moment.  I have some very cute shots of three of my eldest girls all together just goofing around and although they were taken before I really knew what I was doing behind a camera they are pictures that I cherish. Even in the most challenging situations where a child might have severe special needs it’s very possible to come away with wonderful images.  If you are not able to interact much with a child due to the level of understanding, turn to the parents.  They have brought up their special child from the time they were born, and they will know what makes them happy.  Take pictures of them holding their child, comforting them, and loving them.  Let the parents take the lead and be there to document the beauty of the relationship.

I love capturing special children.  I often find that with them comes an innocence and a beauty that you won’t find anywhere else.  Long after I put my camera down, long after I’ve finished editing the images, I find I’m still heart-happy from it.  I certainly get a lot more out of shooting special kids then they do from me shooting them.  So if you’re feeling apprehensive or stressed about a photo session with a special child, I hope that this has helped a little to put your worries at ease.  It can be and often is, something that you’ll remember forever.

About the Author:

Emma currently resides in England with her pilot husband and 5 of their 7 children, the older kids are now off studying. Despite discovering photography as a means to document her children’s lives within the past few years, she has always had a love for photography, “particularly black and white which stems from my love of black and white films when I was a child.” Emma arms herself with a Nikon D700, a variety of prime lenses and a Lensbaby. Visit Emma Wood online.
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35 Comments

  1. Rachel Potter Oct 06 2011 at 7:28 am - Reply

    Emma,

    I love how your genuine caring and nurturing attitude comes through in this article! How did I miss that you had a special needs child!?!?! i <3 you and your work!

  2. celestejones Oct 06 2011 at 7:31 am - Reply

    Great article Emma…thank you for sharing your story, and tips.

  3. Julie Anders Oct 06 2011 at 7:32 am - Reply

    Emma! What a wonderful article. It just shines with your sweet & gentle spirit! And look at Libby modeling for you 🙂 That first picture just melts my heart!

  4. Nance Heidemann Oct 06 2011 at 7:39 am - Reply

    What a wonderful article Emma. Thank you for writing this and sharing your experience.

  5. Amy Lucy Oct 06 2011 at 7:44 am - Reply

    Thanks so much for sharing all this wonderful information with us, Emma. The images of Libby are beautiful.

  6. Lynne Oct 06 2011 at 7:48 am - Reply

    This is a fabulous article, Emma! You are a beautiful person inside and out <3

  7. Linda Rehill Oct 06 2011 at 7:55 am - Reply

    Great pictures thanks for sharing them Libby is so beautiful you are very talented.

  8. Jen Oct 06 2011 at 8:04 am - Reply

    Emma – I just recently met you through our NL 101 class. Thank you so much for writing this article and offering your insight. Your images are always so beautiful and your post is so helpful. Thank you.

  9. Daniele Springett Oct 06 2011 at 8:15 am - Reply

    Emma,

    Thank you for this article. When my very healthy step-sister was 6 years old she had a high fever that wouldn't go away and over the course of a couple months she slowly became mentally disabled. She no longer communicates verbally but does through sign language. She is 40 years old now, loves candles and music and lives in a special needs home down the road from our family. I am so grateful for this article because our family doesn't have a lot of pictures of her and I would like to change that. You have given me great ideas on how to make both of us comfortable while taking pictures of her. Thank you.

  10. Kelly R Oct 06 2011 at 8:21 am - Reply

    Oh Emma – you are amazing. 🙂 Great article!!!! <3

  11. Monica Oct 06 2011 at 8:24 am - Reply

    This is a wonderful article. Thank you for being such a beautiful person inside and out. Libby is lovely and you are both so lucky to have each other! <3

  12. Heidi Oct 06 2011 at 8:53 am - Reply

    Wonderful article Emma! So many great ideas and things to think about.

  13. Kitty Chen Oct 06 2011 at 8:59 am - Reply

    two thumbs up!

  14. Joyce K. Oct 06 2011 at 9:34 am - Reply

    Emma, you are simply beautiful, inside and out! I love this article and thank you for pouring your heart out through your photography! <3

  15. Megan Cieloha Oct 06 2011 at 10:07 am - Reply

    You are amazing, Emma. Your grace and kindness shine through everything you do. I have never had the opportunity to photograph a special child, but I love the perspective that you have given me on the experience that I may one day have. Thank you for modeling, beautiful Libby! <3

  16. Lisa (Tout Petit Pix Oct 06 2011 at 11:25 am - Reply

    Your words touched my heart – once again. Thanks so much for sharing this amazing article! And Libby is such a gorgeous model!!

  17. Lexie Oct 06 2011 at 11:33 am - Reply

    Emma! What a fantastic article! I love your images of Libby – she looks like such a joy 🙂

  18. Angela Oct 06 2011 at 1:57 pm - Reply

    Fantastic article Emma… Thank you so much for sharing 🙂

  19. Emma Oct 06 2011 at 1:57 pm - Reply

    Thanks Kathryn <3 And thank you everyone for your sweet comments. The warm kindness that has been shown to me since I joined CMs is overwhelming. You are all like family to me and it feels natural and right to share my story with you.xx

  20. Corinne Oct 06 2011 at 2:11 pm - Reply

    Emma- The beauty in your heart comes across in all that you do! Thank you for sharing Libby, your experiences and your amazing talent.

  21. Emma Oct 06 2011 at 2:15 pm - Reply

    Daniele – I'm so thrilled that it's given you some ideas. I'd love to see your pictures when you take them and this was exactly why I wanted to write this blog post. xx

  22. jodi arego Oct 06 2011 at 2:22 pm - Reply

    you are such a lovely woman emma, and i so appreciate your sharing your story and guiding others how to best capture the essence of a special child. you are inspiring… as a photographer and as a mother.

  23. Stacey Haslem Oct 06 2011 at 3:01 pm - Reply

    This was a wonderful and motivating article!!! You are amazing Emma! I have a good friend that has a special needs child and I am inspired to visit her and take pictures of her son. Thank you!!!

  24. Lucy K. Oct 06 2011 at 3:01 pm - Reply

    Emma, thank you for sharing your story. It's wonderful that you have such great pictures of your dear Libby 🙂

  25. christina Oct 06 2011 at 3:03 pm - Reply

    such talent, inspiration and heart. You know I'm a big fan – now make the huge fan! 😀 Thanks for sharing your insight and life with us –the girls of CM are blessed to have you as part of our community.

  26. Elle Oct 06 2011 at 3:14 pm - Reply

    Your work is just beautiful, Emma… as is your kind heart and words – thank you so much for sharing your story with us <3

  27. Jennifer Warthan Oct 06 2011 at 3:42 pm - Reply

    This is simply beautiful, Emma!

  28. Kendra Oct 06 2011 at 5:23 pm - Reply

    Oh Emma – thank you so much for sharing and guiding us. This article is such a gift. Libby is absolutely beautiful and your pictures of her are stunning <3

  29. Lia Lotito Oct 06 2011 at 6:00 pm - Reply

    Thank you for share your heart with us… I love this article!

  30. ShannonJoy Oct 06 2011 at 7:12 pm - Reply

    Oh Emma… you are such an amazing person. This article speaks your heart beautifully. I admire you so very much <3.

  31. Lacey Oct 06 2011 at 8:00 pm - Reply

    It's difficult to type because I just read your story on your old blog and now I'm all teary … but thank you for this, Emma. For your thoughts and perspective and inspiration… as a mom and photographer.

  32. Katie W Oct 07 2011 at 8:40 am - Reply

    Such great insight and thanks so much for sharing!

  33. Karen Dorame Jul 11 2012 at 2:00 pm - Reply

    Lovely article. We need more photographers who share your compassion and interest in creating beautiful images of children with special needs. We at Special Kids Photography of America urge photographers to reach out to special families because they often do not realize that there are photographers out there who care and want to deliver treasured portraits.

  34. Amanda Sep 01 2012 at 9:44 am - Reply

    My son has been diagnosed with 2q37.3 deletion and has 11q24.3 – 25 duplication. We are still visiting various doctors to figure out what this all means with regards to his development but we have noticed abnormalities in the shape of his fingers and toes, he stands/walks/runs on his toes 100% of the time. He also has difficulties with learning at school and has social and emotional issues too. In addition to all this he does have some minor speech problems – we can understand everything he says 95% of the time but sometimes he mispronounces things and can't make the correct sound e.g. says 'hole' instead of 'hall'. He is a wonderful little boy and extremely affectionate often telling me and my husband "I just can't give you enough cuddles" He is almost 9years old.

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