a mother hugs her autistic teenager and he laughs

More inclusive photography: making room for neurodiversity when we photograph families

We’re programmed to look for faces and read expressions when we view a photograph, at least if we’re neurotypical. We know that a smile can be faked – but it’s still assurance that everything is normal, good or right with the subject.

When I shared my love of these two photos on the Gram, Emy – JBud’s mom depicted in these photos – wrote this comment:

‘We are too familiar with being the family that “doesn’t take the ideal photo” or gets the routine “I can photoshop out his head so he’ll be looking at the camera” from most photographers. That’s *their* definition of being inclusive. Because smiling at a machine is “normal”? Ideal? The moment does not belong to the camera. It belongs to the person. Thank you for always appreciating that.’

❤️, 🙏🏻 + 💯. She’s exactly right. And what is “normal” about a posed photograph in the first place?

There’s a history. In the early days of photography, smiles were not recommended for subjects because it was too hard to hold a convincing smile for a lengthy exposure. Smiles are signals, they’re not meant to be held. But technology caught up to a glimpse. And I too love seeing the smiles of loved ones frozen in time because it lets me believe they were happy. I do like holding that. I think most of us do.

But I also wonder what kind of stress we, as photographers, impose as we try to get the perfect or ideal photo of any given family, especially one like Emy’s. She and I talked about how this played out long ago when I was taking J-Bud’s newborn and first year baby photos. We worked ourselves into a frenzy trying to get this poor little dude to smile 😫 I wanted her to have those smiling photos so badly. She remembers thinking, is something wrong? What if we knew then what we know now? Would they look the same?

a mom and dad on a couch tickle their one year old baby to make him laugh

We’ve both grown a lot, both as mothers of kids with special needs and as humans. There are families that will always work desperately to fit into the norm because normal is where acceptance and connection live. I will never blame a family living with not-so-normal circumstances for wanting a “normal” family photo and I appreciate the photographer willing to go the extra photoshop mile to provide it. I understand the desire for validation and acceptance, anyone can. I understand wanting what everyone else has.

But the curious part of me wonders, what if there’s another way? An option that validates our kids and makes us feel good without faking or pretending somehow?

This is Emy’s favorite photo from the shoot. She told me it captures “the essence” of her boys. (For me that’s the best compliment imaginable! Swoon!!!)

When she shared this pic on social media, as any proud parent would, it didn’t get the requisite # of likes. And this broke my heart a little, especially because she vocalized how much it meant to her.

We’re wired to look for faces. We’re wired to smile at machines. This image does not check neuro-typical boxes for portrait success.

But I do trust her to know. And maybe I love it myself because I was there. W and M were goofing off on the bench and J-Bud wanted to be in picture, so he walked over and placed himself in a way that felt comfortable for him. “Self accommodations!”, Emy had said out loud.

Immediately I see the W & M wrestling and when I look closer I see the gesture of J-Bud’s back shifting – touching – just not too much touch. Each brother in this photo is autonomous while still being together and that’s an honest vibe for any portrait of teens/tweens.

I know – deep thoughts on photos here – but its kinda my thing. And I really do want to share the rest of our shoot so you can see everybody together and in all their awesome sauce. A couple questions first…

What if family photos could be more comfortable/relatable/relaxed/autonomous? What might our photos reveal and honor in the absence of pressure to perform, be “normal” or be perfect? What might we celebrate and keep close as time turns? And how might it free us all – photographers included – to buck these expectations?

Off with her head-swap, say I!!!! (knuck knuck)

W and M, I loved meeting you both so much! I understand why your family moved from VA, my family moved too for similar reasons but I’ve watched you grow up from a distance because your mom and I have stayed in touch all these years. She’s a pretty special person but you know that! And S, we get to see you on TV but the IRL experience was a treat! I loved meeting your family, thank you all for taking the time for this shoot during this visit. I know your time together is precious.

If you have ever felt like family photography just wasn’t for your family, please reconsider – you are worthy of being seen!!! And if you live in the DC area or beyond, you can check out my family services here. And I’m happy to accommodate however you and need look forward to meeting and capturing your crew.

One more thing… Emy founded an amazing organization, The Mother Ship, Inc, that supports caregivers of children with special needs in Ohio. If you know a family in that area that could use a bright spot, or if are looking for a way to support caregivers with your donation, please consider checking it out!

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