Magazine Article


Making a Difference
Booking sessions with special children

Children with Down syndrome are fun and lovable. However, they may tire easily or slip into a furiously bad mood. Bring them out with compliments and humor or reschedule the shoot.
Image by Laura Popiel, Houston, TX
Not all images come out as flattering as a photographer would like. With the help of Nik software, an "action" can upgrade a snapshot to a saleable portrait.
Image by Karen Dórame, St. George, UT
Laura Popiel has created calendars for the Down Syndrome Association of Houston for several years.
Image by Laura Popiel, Houston, TX

It's not always the case that a photographer needs to spend oodles of extra time photographing a child who has a disability. The fact is that most of these children don't last too long in front of a lens. The best piece of advice is: "Have patience, but work fast." That said, some of my best shots occur at the end of a session when everyone is relaxed and think it's all over. My advice is to keep your camera "cocked" and ready to fire at all times.

Special Kids Photography of America (SPKA) is a nonprofit organization, founded in 2000 on behalf of parents who were pleading for beautiful portraits of their special offspring. Inspiration for its inception came after a young Pennsylvania mother met rejection when she presented her severely disabled 1-year-old son at a scheduled photo session. If only that photographer could have anticipated the thrill experienced when the final proofs are reviewed.

The U.S. Census Bureau reports that 20 percent of the population has some type of disability. That percentage is lower in children, but if serious illness and injury are added to the statistics, it's apparent that as least one in five children arriving at photo studios have some sort of special need.

If photographers do not see regular bookings of special children, where are they? Parents are often reluctant to bring a child—a kid with ADHD, for example—to a photographer, because they're worried how their child will behave. Educating the photographer on how to work with these children is the key to changing the levels of discomfort experienced by both parents and photographers. In the full-day SKPA workshops, attendees learn specific techniques for working with kids with autism, Down syndrome, Cerebral Palsy, cognitive disabilities, Spina Bifida, spinal injury, and many other conditions.

After taking the workshop, completing the test, and submitting four photos for approval, photographers are allowed to use the SKPA logo in marking their services. Demonstrating to parents that a photographer has been trained in unique skills that directly apply to their child establishes confidence. Accreditation also lets a school, therapy center, or parent support group know that an SKPA-trained photographer has the necessary training and awareness to do the job right.

There are many subtleties of which a photographer may not be aware. For instance, a child with autism will most likely not want to look at a photographer, since direct eye contact can cause extreme discomfort for some. In such cases, it's best to take the camera off the tripod and follow the child around.

Briefly, here are some considerations when working with a special child:
• Meet the mother and/or father and interview them about their child.
• Meet the child on a friendly basis ahead of time, if possible.
• Find out how the child communicates (if at all).
• Will the flash or a silver reflector cause a seizure?
• Prior to the session, plan out exactly where you will be and what you plan to do.
• Will the child take direction from you?
• Can the child hold a prop?
• Will the child want to change clothing? Some don't.
• Get in your planned shots first.
• When things don't go as planned, be flexible and think "on the fly."

SKPA does not suggest photographers donate their services for these families. "Charge with your heart," is the recommendation when it comes to figuring out the fee. Nevertheless, recognizing the financial needs incurred by some families, SKPA recently acquired a grant from Pacific Life Foundation (Irvine, CA) to provide a stipend of $100 to accredited photographers who participate in the "Smiles for Katie" program.

Special Kids Photography of America workshops are held in various locations throughout the United States. For more information on the workshops, or the community awareness Ambassador Program, visit or call 435.632.8300.

Karen Dórame is the founder of Special Kids Photography of America and the author of Photographing Children With Special Needs (2003, Amherst Media, Inc.).