Preparing for Family Photos when you have a child with special needs
This is going to be a long post. Bare with me! I think my experience from way before I was ever a photographer has really laid a great foundation for one of my biggest passions--photographing families who are ability-diverse. The truth is, I have been primed for this my entire life! My stepdad, Tony, has been in my life for as long as I can remember (and a few years before that even!) He is paraplegic from a motorcycle accident he was in as a teenager. As children, my brother and I would give each other high-speed "rides" around the house in wheelchairs and even Hoyer lifts--I have no idea how this didn't drive my mom totally nuts! While we always played on the equipment and saw Tony use it everyday, I never really "saw" the wheelchair. I knew Tony as Tony and the wheelchair was just an extension of him that I never paid extra attention to. Before my husband, Jesse, met my parents, I would tell him stories about them and my childhood. It wasn't until I showed Jesse a picture of my family when he said "Tony is in a wheelchair?" It had never crossed my mind to mention it because I have always seen it as any other feature or trait.
Fast-forward to early adulthood and I have always had a passion for working in nursing and pediatrics. I land my dream job as a home health CNA for a little guy with special needs. He was only two when I started working with him and I just love him to pieces. As is home health CNA, I observed every therapy, doctors' appointments, helped him in preschool, and even went with his Mama and waited with her on surgery days. I love this little guy like he is one of my own and I consider myself fortunate to get to be apart of his life. So when I started dabbling in photography, he was one of my first models!
The more connected I became in the local special needs community, the more I saw this deep need for beautiful family photos. Many times, the photos would be pretty and technically good, but Mom didn't love the way her kiddo was slumped over in their chair or the salivary secretions all over their chin and shirt. It really clicked for me. Not only could I take pretty pictures, but I also have the experience to pose and work with these families to give them those photos they dreamed of. I do not lower my standards for any client. Ever. I have tips and tricks to help achieve great family portraits regardless of your child's needs.
My first question I always ask is: Can you show me your favorite photo of your child? I do not care if it is a cell phone image, polaroid, or even if it has a cat ears "filter" on it. I just want to see your kiddo how you see them at their happiest. This helps me establish my standard for your session. If your kiddo looks and smiles at the camera, great. If not, no problem! If I have to have a spinning light up wand and sing Baby Shark or Let it Go-- I can do that too! I am committed.
Second decision is equipment or no equipment? Obviously vents and other life-sustaining machines are nonnegotiable, but when it comes to wheelchairs, gait-trainers, and other assistive equipment, the choice is truly yours. I am comfortable and confident posing kiddos age-appropriately and to their ability. My secret is to play to your child's advantages-- when are they best able to hold their head up? Sit or stand? By strategically posing, I can use other family members to support the person who needs it most. For example, a kiddo who cannot sit unassisted can "sit" on a large boulder if Mom (or Dad) is slightly behind them, giving a place to lean on. Mom leans slightly forward and wraps her arms around kiddo's waist and wa-la! Add in other kids (& Dad/Mom) and it looks like a cuddly family photo with everyone's faces on similar levels. I know it sounds crazy, but it has worked more than once! If you want to include equipment, I am happy to pose with that as well. I generally like families close together and snuggled up--especially if they have younger kiddos, but that is still very possible with assistive equipment. My biggest game-changer for photos with wheelchairs is to remove the headrest if possible. This doesn't "hide" the wheelchair, but it does keep the focus of the image on your beautiful kiddo's face and not the weirdly-shaped dark object that would have otherwise been right behind them.
Third, what makes your kid happy? This is something ALL moms think about to prepare for photos. Bring whatever it is! Light up toy? Fart machine? Water Squirt gun? Whistles? PomPoms? Crinkle paper? I have seen it all and I am not afraid to look like a crazy person! Tell me whatever smiling or attention-getting secrets you have and I will happily do it all! Got a busy kiddo that cannot stop moving? No problems there either! I will run around with them for their individual portrait. For family poses, I will have everyone else in position and ready then we turn it into a game to get your little busy-body to pop in for 1/400th of a second (yes, me and my camera are VERY fast!) If I think I have a solid smile, I will offer to show you the back of my camera so you can see it too! This way I am not guessing which smile you will like most later when I am editing. I know there are little details that make a big difference when it comes to a "good" smile, so I like your opinion! You are the expert on your child after all!
Finally, try to relax and enjoy the moments. I want you to love your photos just as much as you want to love them! I am happy to chat with you about ideas on posing, outfits, and whatever other concerns you may have! I want you to feel at-ease!
Together, we can change the way the world views the all-ability community and I believe beautiful family portraits are apart of that. If you are a fellow photographer reading this and would like to know how you can better support and pose people of all-abilities--shoot me an email! I am happy to help you in any way I can as well!