Capturing the Light Inside: Photographing Medically Fragile Children

Capturing the Light Inside: Photographing Medically Fragile Children

Capturing the Light Inside: Photographing Medically Fragile Children with Sweet Nectar Society

Want more information on this article? Get access to video content and additional supporting images. Launch the June issue of the magazine by logging in or signing up for a free account by clicking here. Shutter Magazine is the industry’s leading professional photography magazine.

Photographing children who are medically, physically or mentally compromised is not something most photographers may think they are prepared for, but if you’re ever given the opportunity, we encourage you to try it. This demographic is underserved by our industry.

To answer the call for this need, we created Sweet Nectar Society, which provides beautiful free portraits to families affected by serious illness, disability or traumatic injury. Over the past five years, we’ve photographed hundreds of children, and with each session, we learn new ways to work with children’s unique needs and abilities.

With the insight we’ve gained through these experiences, we’ve put together a set of tips, tricks and friendly advice for those who are interested in providing a more personalized service to these children, who have so much to share with the world.

Be Emotionally Prepared

We are humans who feel empathy and emotion. These children will touch your heart and teach you things you’ve never imagined. It’s okay to feel unsure, nervous, worried and sad during your client’s session. But our job is not to pity them; it is to share their story through the images we capture. While you are with the child and family, you need to put yourself into photographer mode. Focus on your shots, the light and getting the most of your images. When you’re done, take some time to soak everything in. Many tears have been shed during editing or in the car after a session. Allow yourself those feelings. When you are with your client, though, make the experience as lighthearted and enjoyable as possible. This is a chance to make something very stressful feel very normal and encouraging for the children and their families. This may be their first experience with a professional photographer—or in some cases, the last—so make it count.

Learn About the Child Before the Session

This information will help you prepare the right environment, and will give you confidence throughout the session. Talk to parents or caregivers ahead of time. Ask simple questions: Does your child have any limitations I should know about? Is an outdoor setting okay, or would they be more comfortable indoors? Are there any sensitivities I should know about? Is there anything that frightens or upsets your child?

Learn Teamwork

Use the help of caregivers during sessions. They have the same goal as you do, and they can provide much needed help. Caregivers provide additional physical support so the child can sit or stand. Caregivers can jump in and out of the frame to help grab the child’s attention. They can look out for signs of distress or enjoyment, and give you a heads up. Ask what positions your client enjoys, and work with what is comfortable for the child.

Most parents of special-needs children are used to telling doctors, nurses, social workers and countless others the details of their child’s diagnosis and the care they need. Don’t be shy when asking how you can make the experience as straightforward and pleasant as possible. You both want beautiful images of this child. Let them help you obtain that.

Be Aware of Your Surroundings

Many circumstances can be overlooked when photographing children with medical limitations. A child in a wheelchair may not do well in a hilly park setting. A child with a sensory disorder may not enjoy being photographed next to a busy street. If a child is sensitive to the sun, make sure there is plenty of cover shade. If a child is undergoing certain treatments for cancer or a liver condition, their skin pigmentation may pick up the surrounding colors, so bright green grass could end up being an editing nightmare. Think about which locations will best suit your client’s needs, and choose them based on your research. Being prepared benefits you and your clients.

Take Cues From the Child’s Communication Style

Each child communicates in his or her own way. Be aware of how the child is communicating with you—verbally, with body language, facial expression or eye contact. Following their lead makes the child feel safe and content during their shoot. Learning how to read each child takes time and practice. Look for signs. If you sense the child is becoming frustrated or pressured, back off a bit and let them come to you. If the child is not able to stay seated very long, allow them to get up and wander around while you follow behind.

If the child feels more comfortable sitting with a parent or sibling, enlist that person’s help, and then slowly work that person out of the frame. Always talk to children as though they understand fully what is going on, as most will. Feel free to ask the child if it’s okay that you photograph them. Do they mind sitting here? You can ask, “Have you had enough?” Children are much more aware of what they need than we may think they are.

Have Patience

The children we photograph endure endless treatments, therapies and appointments. This can make them unwilling to cooperate in new situations. When this happens, we give the child her space and ease her into this new setting. We use simple techniques like blow bubbles, sing or tell them a story. There’s no shortage of silly dancing and noisemaking during our sessions.

It takes time and work to establish trust. You have to be willing to put the effort into creating the images you desire. A forced, rushed or staged-looking image will always show through. Honest emotion takes patience. As a rule of thumb, we double the amount of time we would normally plan. During your communication with the parents, you will learn about any limitations that may require additional time.

Highlight the Child’s Spirit and Personality

A disability or illness does not define a child. After you’ve spent some time with the child, you will see his sparkle shining bright. Whether he is verbal or nonverbal, mobile or immobile, his light will show through, and it is your job to capture those moments.

While we want to highlight the child’s personality and not focus entirely on his diagnosis, that doesn’t mean we want to hide it, either. His diagnosis is part of his journey. Find ways to include these details, but they shouldn’t steal all the focus. The viewer should first see a child’s personality and expression, and then his special circumstances. You always want his spirit to be the heart of the photos, but medical tubes, a bald head, a wheelchair or scars are also a part of who they are.

Go With the Flow

Some sessions are more challenging than others. The child may be frustrated, tired or in pain. She may be frightened, anxious or unable to communicate something that is wrong. You’ll be able to get just one angle for some children.

You may not have the best location, lighting or space. We always take a lifestyle approach to the situation. We capture the whole scene: a mother trying to console her child, the room full of machines and charts, hospital wristband, the many details that make up that child’s story. All of these are important.

Reading someone’s personality quirks, their emotional state and their comfort level starts with the eyes. The eyes are said to be the window to the soul, and these children have some of the sweetest souls you will ever be privileged enough to meet.

Our job is to bring out the glimmer of light from within each client, no matter what kind of photography we’re doing. By putting careful consideration, time and unconditional love into each session, you are sure to capture the light inside.

Hopefully these tips will inspire those photographers who are interested in providing children of all abilities an enjoyable experience and images their families will cherish for a lifetime.

Want more information on this article? Get access to video content and additional supporting images. Launch the June issue of the magazine by logging in or signing up for a free account by clicking here. Shutter Magazine is the industry’s leading professional photography magazine.

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