The Heart of the Picture; Photographing Children With Special Needs

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Meet Asher, my gorgeous little nephew! Asher has had a very different first couple of years of life than most two years olds. I’d like to share these excerpts written by his mama.

 

When Asher entered the world he wasn’t breathing and he was unresponsive. He had to be resuscitated before his heart started to beat on its own. Medical records said the umbilical cord was wrapped around his neck cutting off oxygen during labor and delivery. Within minutes of delivery he was taken to the NICU. It was communicated that there was a high probability he wouldn’t make it and, if he did, that he’d be severely affected due to the nature of the brain injury.

Over the next few months we, his family, cared for our hurt child and knew that no matter what, we would make tremendous sacrifices for him. Even though most of it was a guessing game, we spent every waking second considering the monumental size of the issues we faced. We saw this journey as an unbelievable challenge. The pain and worry consumed our thoughts. We were grieving over the son we thought we would have and we worried about the future of the son we now held in our arms.

No one ever dreams this life for their son. I never imagined he’d be medically fragile and face so many challenges. It wasn’t my plan for him. In my mind, I had written a different story. I’ve experienced sadness, despair, emptiness, and a sense of hopelessness many days. But the more I’ve prayed, leaned on God, and got to know my son, the more God opened my eyes to this story of change. Slowly my heart and thoughts have transformed.

No longer do I view our hurt child as a challenge, but as a marvelous gift. 

 

When Asher was just a few months old, I wanted to take some photos of him for the family. I felt slightly apprehensive as I knew I couldn’t fully rely on my checklist of baby poses (yes, I like my lists!) or the normal routine I had been used to following for baby portrait sessions. I wanted to be both compassionate yet take some beautiful pictures for the family.

The goal was to avoid moving him around too much to prevent discomfort or worse – Asher is fed through a G-tube and it could be dislodged if handled incorrectly. Outside of setting up a a spot where the window light was sufficient and giving a couple of suggestions, I really had to let go and let mom lead!

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A SHIFT OF FOCUS

Over the past couple of years, I’ve gotten to know Asher, see him grow and see his beautiful personality develop! I’ve also been able to see the love and stability that his parents give him, not to mention his extended family and support network! Going into taking pictures of him this time around, my focus shifted. How could I encapture all that Asher is to us? It was not simply about taking a decent shot of a child with great lighting and composition, but attempting to convey all the joy that this life is through a photo means the absolute world to those who are closely connected. Isn’t that the essence of a portrait? Composition and some great natural light are still important, but in some cases, it has to come second. *Gasp* :-)

Undoubtedly this should be the attitude we hold going in to every session, recognizing the joy and value that each child is! Its just that sometimes we need that gentle reminder!

In one sense, photographing children who have special needs shouldn’t necessarily be different to any other session. With any child, getting to know them and what interests them will always be important. However, there may be a few things to consider differently.

GET TO KNOW

Asher is comfortable with me being close by him but I still wanted him to feel at ease with the constant clicking of the camera. His parents and caregivers put a large emphasis on taking the time to explain what’s going on around him and if possible to engage his senses. Definitely not something to be underestimated for his development. With this in mind, I make sure to tell him what I’m doing and even have him touch the camera, saying ‘click’.

My advice would be to spend some time with the family prior to your session. You will gain a sense of the child’s range of motion, if anything frightens them, and who will help in encouraging smiles and giggles!

TIME

You may be needed longer than usual, or it may be the quickest session you’ve had. The main thing is that you are not clock watching. Give the time that is needed.

AT A DISTANCE

Sometimes, simply documenting moments from a distance may be preferred, this may be the case when the child is a little older and unsettled by the camera/stranger! Your role may be to stay in the background.

CLOSE UP & ATTENTION TO DETAIL

Asher is unable to sit unassisted, so trying to find ways to take close up photos of him with a nice blurry background was not as straightforward. Most of Asher’s chairs are quite tall and wide, however he loves his outdoor swing, seen below, which happened to be in the open shade as well as it being far enough away from the background to create a nice depth of field. Another option, if they are young enough is to ask the parent to hold them over their shoulder and stand away from the background so you can focus on their eyes. The photos above were taken on their front porch, also taking full advantage of the natural light.

 

If you’d like to read more of Asher’s story you can click here. As well as if you’re interested you can visit Hope For HIE, a community that provides support and resources for families whose children, just like Asher, have been diagnosed with hypoxic ischemic encephalopathy (HIE).

I hope his smile will melt your heart as much as it does my own!

Please feel free to leave comments below. I’d love to hear your thoughts and your experience either as the photographer or a parent.

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