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.
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.
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.