In my previous blog post here, I showed you a large family that I shot in a park, complete with three generations and lots of fun props. There’s a bit more to that shoot than meets the eye (as there so often is in this life!).
One of the children, little O, has Aspergers. It manifests itself in many ways, one of them being an extreme aversion to cameras. If he had felt I was photographing him, his reaction would have been very unpleasant. He is also incredibly active and moves at about a bazillion miles per hour, almost literally never standing still, is not often affectionate, and chooses his company and choice of conversationalist very carefully. He does not take direction and he does not often smile. Because of these traits, O’s mother has very few photos of him since he has been a toddler, something she really wanted to rectify but struggled to see how it could be done. She and Mai also wanted to try for a big family photography, something they thought might be impossible. Basically, it was a huge challenge. Being a bit of a fly-on-the-wall style of photographer, that was where I came in.
I asked Mai and her family to prepare for the shoot more carefully than I would otherwise. We discussed what his favourite things were, what he liked to do, what kind of things absorbed him and made him happy. We tried to time the shoot at a time of day when O was at his best. I conspired with the other children to help me to draw him in, bring him close to me, and asked the adults to be active in moving around O and interacting with him. We chose our location to be one that was nearby, one that had activities and equipment, we brought bagfuls of streamers and bubbles and party blowers and pinwheels. We tried to be thoughtful about what he needed and we kept things simple. For our big family portrait, I asked everyone else to sit and blow bubbles and talk, until O came close enough to be in the frame. I kept as far away from him as I could throughout the shoot, stealth ninja style, and quietly moved throughout the playground. At one point I asked his mother to do whatever it was she would define as something he loves, so she piled him and his sister on her back and went down the slide. And ho! A smile!
And I’m so happy to say that even though he stood still for maybe three seconds the whole time, we got some images of O that I’ve been told are representative of him and his personality, that show him playing and enjoying himself, interacting with his cousins and family, a couple of rare moments of affection, and even, incredibly, a few of him smiling. There was a split second, right at the end of the day, when O leaned in to his mother and whispered something in her ear, ever so sweetly – I was so lucky to be nearby, and snatched up my camera to capture the moment on the very last few frames I had available.
Since this shoot I’ve been thinking about ways in which other children with special needs and disabilities – be it Aspergers, autism, or any of the multitude of physical and mental special needs – could be captured, including those like O who have a violent aversion to cameras and will not allow their photograph to be taken. Keeping them in a comfortable and familiar environment; or maybe going somewhere new; creating absorbing and fascinating experiences for them to enjoy; utilising long lenses; experimenting with turning the camera around and making them the photographer; creating camera/toy hybrids; playing games; practicing my stealth invisible ninja moves; the list of possibilities is endless.
I’d like to say to parents who may not have considered a professional photo shoot as a way to capture photographs of their little ones (or big ones!), even those for whom it seems prohibitive – it can be done! I really believe that. You can have beautiful photos of your family for you to treasure for life. You just need to find the right photographer, who will sit down with you and look for the right technique and the right approach. Not all great photographs are of their subject smiling at the camera – in fact, I passionately believe that most great photographs are taken without their subject’s knowledge, and give the viewer a glimpse in to their real nature and personality. For parents who don’t have many photographs they LOVE of their children, I feel for you. But I think there’s hope.
I would love to hear from people who have perspectives on this topic. Please comment if you have any stories, suggestions, questions or experiences that can help me or others when photographing those with special needs!
I think that every person, of every colour, age, body type, ability and personality is able to be captured beautifully and perfectly on film. I work every day to prove that theory.
Little O… isn’t he lovely?