Elizabeth & The Catapult – Everybody Knows
One of the great gifts photography brings is opportunity to meet new people, and be there for special and important moments in their lives. When you’re slightly introverted like I am, it’s a great way to feel a part of things. More and more often these events, whether they’re weddings, family portraits, events, sports, are becoming more inclusive to all walks of life.
Jimmy Eat World – If You Don’t, Don’t
I have the privilege of two great careers: I teach and coach at a local school, and I take pictures for a living. These two careers intertwine in great ways, and provide a great counterbalance to each other. The first few years of teaching, I worked in special education with all types of students and it was a great training ground for everything else in my life. It made me a better teacher, a more observant photographer, and a better person (I hope).
Some of my favorite pictures have been taken when working with people with special needs. All I had to do was be there and take the picture. I had already brought the camera gear (I always carry a camera with me anywhere I go) because we’d done the team yearbook photos that day and were taking some candid shots as well. During the game, I spent the first half coaching, handed off my camera to a student I trusted while I lost my voice yelling. During half-time, while the team went in with the head coach to go over second have adjustments, I grabbed the camera back and shot the half-time show and followed up with shooting the second half candids. I had to make sure the referees were aware of that, assistant coaches leaving the bench can get a technical in a heartbeat. But fortunately, it wasn’t a problem. The picture I got was one the parent was thrilled with. They later told me they had such a hard time getting pictures that had their child smiling and happy, and getting portraits was felt impossible. That they had one with their child not only smiling, but included by other children in an event was a huge deal for them.
I’ve had many other moments like this. I was never more proud when my team played another school that had special needs students on their team. Our kids were informed and were simply amazing when the kids got on the court. They made sure to play defense and play their role, but made sure to give the students enough space to take a shot. Like many videos that go viral online, our kids were just as hopeful that these students would get a basket. Our bench actively rooted just as loud for them. I don’t know who I was more proud of, those kids for having the bravery and desire to get on the court, their teammates for being so inclusive and supportive, my students for being absolute class acts, the crowd for being involved, or the coaches of the other team for putting character above all.
Meatloaf – Paradise by the Dashboard Lights
Special needs youth and adults can often have a hard time adjusting to a photo session. Some simple observations and adjustments by both family members of special needs individuals and photographers working with them can make it a great experience for all involved.
First, before any other tips, try to remember that these individuals want the same thing as the rest of us, but to them, the way they process information and the world around them is different. We just have to be the ones to adjust to them, not expect them to play by our rules. We’re all special in some way, have our own quirks. We allow each other to have these quirks because we can communicate them and cope. It’s not that easy for others. So with that in mind, consider the following…
Photography sessions, whether they are weddings, family portraits, or whatever something different than their normal routine, and that can cause anxiety and stress that manifest in different ways. Family portrait sessions, and sometimes weddings, are the hardest on them. Parents want a great picture and are worried that it won’t happen. You have to hold a pose or work really hard to engage the student to smile or pose the way the photographer wants. Try to make sure the routine stays as similar as possible to normal. Find a way to make your photographer’s schedule or event schedule fit with the person’s needs, and not the other way around. Schedule a photo session for when the student has free time allotted into their day, and not during a time when they are usually doing a preferred task or especially close to a meal or normal hygiene time.
Meatloaf – Out of the Frying Pan (Into the Fire)
Make sure you start prompting the student about the session or event long before it happens. Maybe a month before it’s scheduled (if you have the ability to schedule out that far), start at that time of day letting them know what you’ll be doing a month from now. Show them other family pictures or sample images you’re looking for, ask them what they would like to wear, involve them. Get them excited. “Guess what we get to do next week!” If you have Pinterest and they can, have them pick out pictures they like. The more someone knows what to expect, the easier it is on them. That goes for anyone really.
Let the photographer know about any sensitivities or issues when you’re scheduling the shoot. The photographer wants to get you the best picture possible and wants everyone to enjoy it. If a person has severe light sensitivities, or issues with flashes, the sooner a photographer knows about it, the sooner they can plan for it and bring an alternate lighting solution. If the person has physical disabilities that make sitting or moving difficult, we can plan for that as well. The more we know, the more we can help and adjust. If it is sound, we can adjust for that too. Loud noises cause problems? We can deal with that. The person likes a certain type of music? We can have a playlist on our phone ready to go! The person is interested in a certain TV show, cartoon, or video game? We can research that so we can ask them about it, talk to them about it. Anything to make someone feel at ease. If it’s a wedding, make sure we know beforehand, we’ll be ready.
Blue Suede – Hooked on a Feeling
Photographers often go to events like Special Olympics or Autism Awareness activities. If you see a photographer there, ask them for their card, and point out your person. They’ll make sure to do the rest.
And if you’re interested in working with students with special needs, contact one of these organizations. In addition to local chapters of special needs awareness groups you can join on Facebook, there are active groups all over the United States always looking for supportive people to help celebrate the diversity and joy that these individuals bring into the world. Donate your time, it’ll pay back more than money ever could.