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The No Forced Smile Approach to Special Needs Photography

"Say cheese" might be one of the most common things you think of when it comes to standard portrait photography. In the days of mall studios or even class pictures, this phrase is something we can all attest to hearing at least once in our lives. With more modern day photography, there has become less and less forced smiles and bribery in order to get that perfect image. 

When I first started photography, I did what any mother might do and practiced on my own kids. Whether it was the multitude of pictures that set my son off or the sheer hatred of the idea of the camera, I could not get an image of him looking my way. I improvised and gave him a camera in order to take a picture of me instead while I photographed him. Behind his lens was a genuine smile that could never had come with a forced expression. 

Samantha Bishop made this same discovery when photographing her own son, Levi. However, with her case, it was a little more complex than just giving a camera to her son. Levi was diagnosed with autism around the preschool age. Bishop wrote:

I've raised Levi alone, since he was six months old. We have faced struggle after struggle. I was 18 when I had him and not prepared for anything life was about to throw at me. I left an unhealthy relationship and situation in the middle of the night and boarded a plane in the early hours of the morning with nothing more than my six-month-old and a duffel bag. We were homeless for eight months. Over the years, we made it work. I found a solid career in emergency services and then the judicial system and put a great roof over his head.

There were daily fights with the school systems and doctors. Struggling to just balance what she felt should be a normal life with t-ball games, parties, regular P.E. classes, and the pressure of the "insta-perfect life, posting adorable photos of my child smiling happily and looking at the camera," Bishop wrote. Out of every 5,000 photos, she could manage to get 10 usually without eye contact or showing much emotion, she stated. 

A few weeks ago, the duo was struggling with medical issues for Bishop and emotional issues for Levi, when Bishop admits she broke down. Feeling as many mothers do, she wrote: "I had failed as a mother. I had put so much energy into resenting what the doctors told me that I never stopped to just love the brilliant, hilarious little human that was in front of me. And so came the need for me to show just how amazing he really is in the only way I knew how, through photography". 

In his corner is his five-year-old cousin, Lola. According to Bishop, she is Levi's sidekick and they are inseparable, always playing together. "She loves him the way I wish everyone could love him," Bishop wrote. The pair have always loved to dress up, but Levi especially. Every time he sees a new character, he is creating a costume. Favorites range from Ghostbusters to police officers, chefs, and lawyers. He spent a week in a top hat after watching "The Greatest Showman" (which if you have ever seen the movie, you would feel the same). If he's not in some sort of costume, he can almost always be found in a suit and tie. Bishop explained that clothing has always been an intense obsession with him, often crippling to his everyday life and functions. So, the decision to let him dress up was a choice that helped to bring him into the picture without sacrificing what made Levi so unique. The T-Rex costume has been a popular favorite among photographers from portraits to weddings. For Bishop and Levi, it allowed Levi to be part of the show in his own way. The connection these two have is apparent in every image. 

Bishop said since the release of this session, she has received mixed responses from others. Some viewers felt the images were attention-seeking and the fact that her son was autistic did not mean much in the big picture of the session. However, Bishop feels this could not be further from the truth: 

While many people do not see why his autism or other special needs have much to do with this shoot, I think many will. This is him in his element. There are no forced smiles, no bribery, no pretend happiness. This is the goofy, hilarious, kindhearted boy I was given. Because of his special needs, he has a near-photographic memory, he is as blunt as they come, he can build anything, and he is hilarious and brilliant. And so, I choose to celebrate his 'labels' and teach him to use them to his advantage rather than see them as an obstacle.

Special needs photography does need to be approached a bit differently than other sessions in that there is not always a good way to compromise with a child for that perfect smiling shot. Her ability to not only get her child to engage in the session but also to capture the playfulness that is not always apparent in her son wins in my book. While Levi might have been dressed head to toe as a T-Rex without being able to see his expressions, we all know that under that mask, he was ear-to-ear smiling, as many of us were just looking at the images. 

With almost 8,000 shares, I can safely say this session was a hit not only with parents of special needs children but the community as a whole. If you are a parent of a special needs child, you know this session was not just part of Bishop's job as a photographer, but more importantly, as the overwhelming desire of a mother to hold onto her child being little, even for just a bit longer. 

All images with permission and courtesy of Samantha Bishop.

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Ariel Martini's picture


Motti Bembaron's picture

Very nice. I photograph special need school and they are a real challenge. Many times all we want is just one photo of even hint of a smile. Many are not verbal or responsive but we try our best.

Bryan Steffen's picture

I can relate to this on many levels. My wife and I have a 6 children with our 9yr old (#5 in line) on the autism spectrum. I appreciate the notion to let the child be who they are, costume, "fancy" clothing or that always present toy/keepsake in their hands. Jaxon has a flair for being different, we had two school year pictures in row that were nothing short of spectacular for him. In second grade they had pictures on St. Patrick's day and he naturally had on a green shirt. He also chose to wear his green bowler hat to school. He triumphantly brought his pictures home a couple of weeks later beaming from ear to ear that he got to wear his hat for the picture. So our little red headed guy, wearing a kelly green minecraft shirt and his green bowler hat had a smile from ear to ear in his picture because he was allowed to be himself. The next year he had gotten a new sweatshirt with a purple, swirling galaxy print all over. He was allowed to choose the background and they had a very similar purplish, swirling star field background to choose. Of course that is what he chose. It was almost like a being in front of a green screen with his head floating in a swirling star field. But he was smiling from ear to ear because he was in his element.

One other thing I think is touched on here slightly, is that many people assume that it is normal for the proverbial "Smile" to be present when taking pictures. For many on the spectrum or with other special needs, smiling is not a normative behavior and trying to force our expectations of a smile on them can be stress inducing to them. Ultimately, I think its important to capture the child in their element. They may not be "smiler" or it may simply be that they need the right setting so they can be themselves. Then you can capture them at their best.