Like most mothers, Rochelle Barnes has photos of her children crowding the walls of her home.
"I’ve taken Cory to studios with the other kids to get his picture taken," said the Gilbert mother of six.
"But it’s been hard to get good shots of him. He’ll either have his foot over his head or his tongue sticking out. The photos make him look like he has special needs because he’s doing something wrong."
The difficulty for the photographers has been that 4 1/2-year-old Cory Barnes is a child with special needs. He has Down syndrome.
"A lot of parents of special needs children are apprehensive about having their child’s photo taken because they’ve had a bad experience," said Phoenix photographer Sally Harding, who recently photographed Cory. "And they are scared to try because they’ve learned they can’t take their kids to Penny’s or Olan Mills and expect them to look pretty and pose for a picture."
Harding has worked with Valley author Karen Dórame to create a book to teach photographers how to capture the spirit and strength of children with disabilities and serious illnesses. To put together "Photographing Children With Special Needs," Dórame spent five years photographing hundreds of kids with special needs. During that time, she learned the special techniques that are critical to photographing these children.
"My daughter had a disabled son who had gone through year of difficulty after being born," Dórame said. "There were visits to doctors and therapy, and when he made it to a year old, she wanted to go out and celebrate and have his photo taken."
But the photographer was insensitive to the boy’s differences in appearance and physical ability.
"Right when she got home, she called me and said, ‘Why don’t we start an organization that helps photographers learn to take pictures of kids with disabilities?’ " Dórame recalled. "So in 1994, I learned to take photos and started taking photos of kids with disabilities to learn what challenges photographers run into."
What Dórame found is that the challenges a photographer faces are as varied as the different disabilities.
"Flickering lights or certain noises might bother some kids," she said. "Many of these kids get scared or angry very easily, and it’s hard to predict what’s likely to happen, what’s likely not to happen. Some kids are quick to respond, others are slow to respond and some will not be able to respond. Every child is different, so you have to be flexible."
To combat those challenges, she prepares before the photo shoot.
"A pre-session interview is the most important part of photographing special needs kids," Harding said. "It’s important to go to the house, talk to the parents, interact with the child as much as possible or observe him."
Harding arrived two hours before the shoot so she could learn as much as she could about Cory’s disability, talk with his mother and to let Cory get to know her. She even got down on the floor with him and played.
"You want them to get to a level of comfort with you," she said. "It also teaches you what makes the child happy or sad, what scares them or makes them laugh, and what makes them look at you."
To facilitate a successful photo shoot, Dórame has used baffles of dogs around her camera lens, played video games, appealed to kids’ love of firefighters and police officers, let them hold treasured objects and played Elvis music.
"There was one child who was clutching onto a coffee can lid," Dórame said. "So I let him keep it because it provided comfort and security and a sense of familiarity for him during the shoot."
Dórame said too many photographers would have wanted the coffee lid out of the picture, which may have upset the child and disrupted the photo shoot.
"They are afraid that they won’t get a good picture, that they won’t be able to create beauty," Dórame said. "But it’s surprising how you can get gorgeous pictures by stepping out of box and using your skills to let the camera catch these children enjoying a moment of life."
To capture those moments, photographers must relinquish control to the child.
"Do you think you could invite a butterfly into your studio and have it sit on a stool, look at you and smile?" Dórame asked. "Of course not. You’re going to have to take your camera off the tripod and follow the butterfly around the room and take pictures that way. And that’s the same thing you’re going to have to do if you’re photographing a kid with autism or attention deficit disorder."
The payoff is a treasured memory for parents who are too used to heartache.
"Parents don’t want cookie-cutter shots that fit the child into the mold," Dórame said. "They get abuse every day with stares or lookaways. So they want something that somebody can stare at and say, ‘Hey, your child really looks like he’s enjoying life. That’s a beautiful picture.’ "
And that’s exactly what Harding gave Barnes.
"She didn’t ask him to do anything, to smile or sit a certain way," Barnes said. "She took the time to make Cory look natural. And now we have some great shots of him."