Thanks to Scott and Brad for having me a guest blogger, especially for this piece today. It’s about an assignment that is near and dear to me.
As a way of introduction: I’ve been a commercial photographer now for over 30 years. Spent 4 years getting my BFA in photography at RIT, about 5 years assisting in New York after that, and now 30 years being on my own has, as we photographers say, flashed by. I’ve been very, very lucky at having some really great long-term clients, who are the exception rather than the rule for commercial, business-to-business photographers.
Over the years if there is one job that I would want to define my career it would be an assignment I’ve now done for 16 out of the last 17 years. We just finished shooting a few weeks ago for the Toys R Us Differently-Abled Guide. For a week I get the privilege to photograph a wonderful group of special needs, differently abled kids. Over the years I’ve photographed, with the extraordinary help of my crew, a wide variety of kids. A partial list of the kids I’ve photographed over the years have included those with Down syndrome, autistic, hearing impaired, visually impaired, spina bifida, brittle bone, this year a wonderful 2 year old with Progeria also know as the aging condition, and many other varied conditions.
The images shown here are from previous years catalogs, as I can’t show any from this year until the current catalog comes out this fall.
This is the one assignment I call the art director to get the shoot date held 4 to 5 months ahead. That’s very unusual in commercial assignments, but they understand the reason is I try and get the same crew reserved and together. They are freelance and likely not available if I don’t hold the dates early. It’s an exceptional crew. The hair and makeup stylist Miriam Boland, the wrangler Biata Doyle, Stylist Beth Mosner, and my number one assistant Norman Smith who has worked on each catalog with me from the beginning. The producer is easy to get, it’s my wife Regina. The last 4 years a wonderful art director at Toys R Us to guide us, Michelle LaConto Munn.
If there is one thing that I would tell anyone working on a project like this in any capacity, especially a photographer, is to remember and keep in mind one important over riding factor about all these kids, and that’s the fact that they are all kids first and foremost. Sounds simple, but if you keep that in the forefront, and not treat them any differently, the rest comes naturally.
Two other qualities to keep in mind is patience and flexibility on your part. Many times we have a child who at first thinks they are at yet another therapist or doctor’s office, what with the cables and equipment all around. We’ve had many a very reluctant child who at first blush looked like “No way, Jose, am I going on set and looking happy about this” but patience and attention to understanding each child is key. Some like a lot of activity some don’t. Some like lots of loud music, but some, like those with a cochlear implant, prefer a quieter setting. You need to spend some time with the kids, talk to the parents, and understand that each child is an individual, their own person, and you need to adapt a little to their personality, not vice versa. It’s all about the kids, not about the photographer.
The first year of the catalog, 1994, when I heard they would be producing a Differently Abled Guide, I called the Creative Director at Toys who pulled this all together, Mary Hogarth. After doing numerous catalogs including their Christmas Book several times, it was the only time I asked directly to be given a catalog at Toys R Us. Mary told me there was little to no budget and she would probably use existing art. I said I was willing to help in any way, including adjusting my photo fee, and luckily, Mary was able to utilize me.
Just one of the many reasons why this project was started was Mary getting a letter from a mom with a differently abled child, who lamented that while her and her husband knew what toys to get their child, their relatives and friends sent 15 pairs of pajamas that Christmas. No child needs 15 pair of pajamas rather than15 toys at Christmas.
Even with the support of the founder of Toys R Us, Charles Lazarus, Mary scrambled to get the first catalog produced. That first year was really a labor of love on many people’s part and especially because of Mary’s determination. The catalog, which is well known and regarded in the DA community, has each toy labeled in the catalog with symbols to alert parents, relatives and friends, which toys are good for various abilities. The symbols alert people what the toy is good for fine motor skills, large motor skills, vision, verbal, social, and so on. Very helpful when you don’t know what toy might be appropriate for a differently abled child. At the first production meeting, it was emphasized that all the research and advise from various organizations and associations was that it shouldn’t be “”special toys for the special kids in a special place”. Every toy we shoot is a standard toy from standard stock at any Toys R Us store.
Casting that first year was hard, as we had no pre-existing catalog to show people at different associations. Educators and therapists who work with these kids are rightfully very protective of them and it took some doing to gain their trust and help for that initial casting the first year. We called friends who connected us with various schools and organizations. I went and did a Polaroid castings where I could, taking notes on various abilities. After the first year, when people saw the results and that first catalog, casting is now easier. Toys R Us now gets a lot of letters from parents asking to be in the catalog. So many are so adorable, but there are limited slots and we have to match up ages and abilities with the toys being promoted.
Michelle the art director has quiet a task laying out the catalog, working with the toy buyers, matching the right kids with the appropriate toys, and making it all work.
I will say that while this catalog is very unique, Toys R Us has always been inclusive in all their catalogs, well before this specialized one, and have always shown the diversity that makes up our society. The Differently Abled Guide should be out in September at Toys R Us stores. If you don’t see them, ask at the store, or request one online from the Toys R Us website. You can get the entire story and many of the covers (I did not shoot most of the celebrity covers) right here.
The Differently Abled Guide the only commercial project I take on that we produce prints for each child. Not only do I make a print of an outtake from the catalog, but we also try and do a basic portrait to also provide. A lot of families put so much effort and resources into providing for their special child, that a great, professionally done portrait is not high on their list. Providing them with what I’m good at, getting a good shot means a lot to them, but in a way even more to me.
If you are a photographer who is good with kids and you make a living photographing kids, think about giving something back and doing something like a nice portrait for a family with a differently abled child. They will greatly appreciate it and you’ll find out that you too will greatly appreciate doing it. You will find out that these special needs kids are really just special.
You can see more of Jack’s work at Reznicki.com, and keep up with him and Ed Greenberg over at The Copyright Zone