Professional photography, particularly for neurodiverse families, can be exclusionary. This topic has been on my mind for ages as I, a professional photographer, have tried to find someone else to take photos of me with my family so we can actually get photos of all of us together for once in our lives.
At the outset, I will say that I am couching this post in my own experience. I don’t intend to speak for someone else’s experience and I know firsthand that neurodiversity (Autism, ADHD, etc.) manifests in different ways for everyone. I will also say that you, as a professional photographer and business owner, are more than free to set up your business however you’d like. What I would like to call attention to in this post is the fact that a lot of the ways many (most, honestly) photographers work does not make it easy or sometimes even feasible for families like mine to get nice photos of themselves.
I will also acknowledge that I do some of these things myself, even as someone who is neurodiverse, so I’m also calling myself out on this. I’m not pretending to have all the answers or a big one-size-fits-all solution; I want to start a conversation and I want all of us to think about how we can better serve one another in a photographer-client relationship, and for neurodiverse families to know they’re seen, respected, and solutions can be worked out.
How Families Self-Select Out Of Photos
When I say self-select, I mean that a family might be searching for a photographer and go through tens of them on Google or Instagram, read through their sites, and find nothing that makes them think they’d be welcome or that this person with whom they’d like to work would be at all flexible to work with their family.
Restrictive Times: As a photographer and an artist, you are more than welcome to set your own times for photos. Some like to work early mornings. Some only shoot at sunset. These hours are beautiful in terms of flattering lighting for everyone, but for children who need strict routine, they don’t work. Some will make you reschedule if the lighting isn’t absolutely ~perfect~ or even a little cloudy.
“Just keep the kids up, it’ll be worth it!” “Have them take a nap later in the day!” “You’ll be so happy you got those photos even if they’re tired the next day” you say. Being off of routine can absolutely be hard for kids; all children need routine and boundaries to thrive and learn how to function as people in this world.
But when your model is essentially “throw off your entire routine for some pretty photos,” that makes me think you’ve never worked with a family like mine. For us, being up too late or just being too tired in general means it’s harder to follow directions and listen. This can manifest in being just generally grumpy or off down his own rabbit hole, tuned out to everyone around him. This in turn will make the rest of us stress out because we’re self-conscious that you’re judging his behaviour and not listening to us in how to interact with him when we’ve already spent at least $400 on these photos. This can also show up as generally unsafe behaviour: he might just run off entirely because he’s absolutely done with what we’re doing.
I’m not saying this happens every time — we’ve definitely had some good nights where we were up late. But I am saying that it’s enough of a possibility that when I consider doing a sunset session, even if it’s right at what would normally be bedtime, I have to factor this in. Usually this leaves me frustrated and makes me just close my browser.
Inaccessible Locations: I love shooting at the beach or in the mountains, especially here in the PNW — there’s beauty everywhere you look and beautiful locations help ground people in a place and add to the story.
But when you’re on the side of a mountain, that can be dangerous for a kid like mine who might run off and not listen when someone yells at them to stop. At the beach? Forget about following directions, it’s time to play in the water.
These locations also don’t always cater to families who might have mobility problems, but that’s a post for another time.
No Information on Session Flow: If your site doesn’t tell me anything about how you work with clients, I will have no idea if you would know how to accommodate us and adapt to what we might need. For example, I emphasize that my sessions are family-led and play-based. When I say this, I mean that I want you all to go at your own pace and I jump in from time to time with directions to get certain shots that I like to get or encourage you all to continue doing what you’re doing to best capture those emotions but also to make everyone feel at ease.
If you don’t tell me anything about how you get to know families and work with them but oh look at these pretty pictures from sessions past, how am I supposed to know that you’ll be able to make me feel at ease when my kids aren’t following directions? When we’ve tried to get photos before, even when I’ve explained how you need to talk to my oldest, some photographers will just continue asking them to do things when I’ve said that doesn’t work, and now I’m stressing out and uncomfortable, everyone around me can feel that I’m uncomfortable, and we’re all just having a bad time. Again, this also goes back to being off routine: when we’re regulated, listening is easier and everyone is at ease. When we’re off routine, following directions becomes twice as hard. This doesn’t work with photography when half the point is effectively following directions to capture emotions on camera.
Example: asking a kid to look at the camera and smile. If someone is autistic, they might not want to look at the camera at all. They may not smile. They might not even be listening to you. How are you going to encourage that family to tune in and focus on each other so you can capture those real expressions of love they have for each other? Snuggle photos are another one. I love snuggle photos. Not every autistic person wants to be snuggled. A kid with ADHD might be using the terrain to make their own obstacle course — how are you going to adapt to that? The list goes on and on and is different for every neurodiverse person/family.
The point of all this is to say that your tips for preparing your family for a session with you might not work for every family. If your entire business model is predicated on making me throw off our entire everything — routine, comfort, etc. — for the sake of some pretty photos, I’m pretty much going to keep my routine and comfort and choose to forego the photos.
Photographers: How To Do Better
This is a big question and I don’t pretend to be an expert, but again, speaking from my own experience and having asked other neurodiverse families what would work for them, I’m hoping this can help you be more inclusive.
Be Respectful: Respect who they are. Respect how they express emotion. Please, for god’s sake, don’t make anyone feel self-conscious for their kid not smiling or for just not acting the way you expect kids to act.
Get To Know Families: When you ask families about themselves when they book a session, ask if there are things you as the photographer need to know. Ask how to help them relax. Ask if anyone needs accommodation, whether that’s an elderly family member with a mobility issue or a neurodiverse family member. Listen to them. Keep listening to them. Remember: these aren’t “special” accommodations, these are things you should just be doing anyway.
Be Flexible: As the photographer, you should have enough experience to read the room and see how everyone is feeling; we’ve all had sessions where the parents get stressed because the kids aren’t listening or have a different way to play. You need to adapt and check in with the family to see how they’re feeling and if there’s anything you need to do to change how you’re handling things. At the same time, don’t pander, don’t treat them with kid gloves, and don’t make someone anxious.
Families: How To Choose A Photographer
This is hard for me to give advice on because I don’t know the answer here. It’s hard. You may have a photographer whose work you love but everything about them doesn’t seem to suggest they’d be flexible or accommodating. And that’s honestly pretty demoralizing. It’s something I’ve been struggling with for honestly years at this point, but especially the last couple months. Would you believe I don’t have a single professional photo of my entire family all together? I have a few of me and my kids, and a ton I’ve taken of my husband and our kids, plus lots of the kids and grandparents, but all of us together? Not a one.
What I will say is that if you have someone whose work you like or in whose sessions you’re interested, then reach out. A decent person should be willing to listen and be accommodating. State exactly what it is you need. When I have families fill out my new client questionnaire, I ask specific questions about how to get everyone to feel at ease, or if there’s literally anything about anyone I need to know. Any good photographer should have a similar one. If their answers aren’t satisfactory for you, thank them for their time but say you don’t think you would be a good fit and ask if they have someone else they can recommend. You deserve to feel respected and to work with someone who’s really going to go that extra mile for you. Sometimes someone’s heart is in the right place but they’re just not right for you and that’s totally okay.
If I’m emailing someone, I’m telling them what we need — someone who can be calm, engaging, and not take it personally if my kid isn’t acknowledging them in the way they’re used to (smiles, eye contact, etc.) I’m asking how their sessions are structured (if it’s not clear enough for me on their website) and what they tend to ask families to do specifically so I can see how much specific direction-following there is. I’m not the type to put on a pretty dress and twirl on top of a mountain; that’s just not who I am as a person. But I can sit on a blanket with my kids and snuggle, sing songs, have ticklefights, play chase games or ring around the rosy. I need someone who can understand that and be open to it. I’m telling them my son is autistic and I get awkward in front of the camera (like, really awkward and uncomfortable for myriad reasons to the point that I prefer to be behind it and will not look at photos of myself), but I’m putting more emphasis on what it is that we need. The old saying is true: if you’ve met one autistic person, you’ve met one autistic person. What works for my family may not work for another. I need someone who can structure their session to work with us as a family and not what they feel like will work or what they read will work on fucking Autism Speaks (reminder that they are a garbage organization and do not care about autistic people or their families at all. Please stop supporting them).
Neurodiverse families: you matter. Your experiences matter. You deserve those nice photos as much as the neurotypical family. Maybe your photos don’t look like theirs but you know what? You’ll treasure those photos anyway. Document your life. Remind yourselves of where you were and how far you’ve come. Remind yourselves of what you treasure and what your strengths are as a family. Maybe your photos are done in-home with your little vaulting off the sofa three feet into the air. You know what? That’s special. That’s a kind of joy that deserves to be captured and shared. As neurodiverse people, we experience the world in a way that is unique to us and our families are important.
So send that email. That’s as much a challenge to you as it is to me. Good luck.