The Special Needs Assembly Line Portrait

“Should we take him out of the wheelchair?” Mom says as she tilts her head toward her sixteen year old son who is strapped into a specialized wheelchair that swallows his bone thin, yet surprisingly strong body.

“The chair is fine.” I say and smile. “Just wheel him over here and we’ll pose the rest of the family around him.”

I put Mom on one side and Dad on the other, the two younger sisters stand in the back forming a modified group of five pose.  The Special Needs child is twisting and moaning and pulling at his restraints, his eyes look in different directions and his teeth grow in misshapen rows in his gaping mouth.  I trip the lights and he struggles mightily to get away.

“Oh, he has the most beautiful smile.” Mom says as she stokes his head while Dad holds him still by griping his neck. “I hope you can get him to smile.”

I do not get him to smile.

Special Needs is the cover all phrase that has replaced less politically correct terms for people with physical and mental disabilities.  These are people who are still loved and whose families still want portraits of them.

The Special Needs person ranges from the ever smiling two year old with Down’s Syndrome and the never smiling sixteen year with Down’s Syndrome to elderly people with dementia of one sort or another.  Children that will never speak, never see the world as we see it, never know anything but the inside of a Doctor’s office their entire lives.

I have photographed 80 year old parents who still have their 60 year old Special Needs child living with them and I always have to wonder what is going to happen to that child when they die.

Autistic children have a hard time standing still and don’t really believe in following directions.   On the whole, they would rather be somewhere else and have no qualms about making this clear.  Getting them to look in the right direction is often as good as it gets.

There was a blind man not too long ago who came in with a service dog, the blind man barked at everyone not to touch his dog-that it was not a pet.  He also had a large sign on the dog that said Do Not Pet.  He was a very grumpy fellow.

I see a lot of older people now.  Strokes and Alzheimer’s and the countless infirmities of failing bodies involve all manner of wheelchairs, scooters, canes, and walkers.

It is not uncommon for an organization to have a busload of Special Needs people come in for their Portrait.  People living in a state hospital don’t usually have a lot of money, so we just take two snaps and send them on their way.

The Assembly Line Portrait business is one that relies on appointments and keeping things moving.  The result is that a Special Needs person doesn’t get any more time than anyone else.  And they often need a lot more time-as in hours, not minutes.  The lights in the studio make them uncomfortable, the flash frightens them, strangers trying to get their attention make them want to go home.

Most of the time I can get a Special Needs person to look in the right direction, and occasionally get a smile.  The Chair can be covered with a cloth.  The lights can be moved to minimize the glare on the super compound lenses of their glasses.  A loved one can often speak softly and calm an uncomfortable person.

There are now photographers who specialize in Special Needs subjects-a testament to the advances of science and the skills of Doctors to keep a vast range of people among the living who would have died not that long ago.

For the most part, Special Needs people make up a small percentage of the people I see day in and day out.  They stand out in my memory as they are often challenging to photograph and their parents can be unreasonable in their expectations.

We do the best we can, as our goal with Special Needs people is the same as our goal with anyone else-to sell them portraits.  One time when the standard busload of Special Needs people rolled in, they each had enough money to buy a Touch Up and Frame for their Freebie.  While this is a lot less than we like to sell, it is a lot more than we usually sell to bussed in people.  Someone made sure we did have a totally bad day and that was nice.

On the other hand, we have had Special Needs people buy large packages and then their Caregivers bring them back and the Caregiver demands a refund-ignoring the wishes of Special Needs person.  They feel that we are taking advantage of the person-we feel that if they are able to work and earn enough money to pay for one of our packages, they are more than welcome to buy one.  Of course, we have children drag back their aged parents and demand refunds as well-clearly we are taking a small part of their inheritance they don’t want to surrender.

The Assembly Line Portraits bottom line is simple enough, if you step, roll, or hobble in front of my camera, you are expect to BUY something.  Our business is Selling portraits, not handing out Freebies.

We do what we can to capture images of our Subjects at their best, we do this in order to Sell them Portraits.  The Mom whose Special Needs child didn’t smile, didn’t buy any portraits, but enough other families who came in that day did buy portraits-so it was a good day.

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