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

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36 Comments

  1. Thank you for this, what gorgeous photographs and such an amazing assignment. I’m inspired. :)

  2. What a great guest post! Thanks Jack for letting us know one of the ways you share your talent. I have appreciated your collaboration with Ed on The Copyright Zone and at Kelby Training and this adds a really human dimension to your professional sharing.

  3. That’s a great guest post. Brilliant with kids, you have actually given an entire how-it-goes-on a shoot write up. It’s so nice to see such work of giving something back to the society. Great pictures. You are too good with kids ! really.

    The last 2 paragraphs are so important. Well said.

  4. Nice post and very nice cheerful photos of children. Good luck Jack

  5. Jack, Thank you for all that you do. My wife and I try to give back to our community using our photographic skills. This just inspires us to do more!

  6. Wow…..just wow! An inspiring blog post. Thanks for sharing it with us, Jack!!

    –John

  7. Jack, an awesome post and very humbling. I’m sure the parents just love getting those portraits.

  8. Jack, thank you for this great post. I’m a retired pediatrician who is now enjoying time to be a photographer. I’ve had a chance to work with many of these children and their families during my career and applaud you for this great work. If there is one thing you wrote here that stands out to me the most, it’s, “…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.” Thanks again Jack, you’re an inspiration as a photographer and as a person.
    Marty

  9. There’s nothing but good in that assignment! What a great way to use your talents and a great tool for parents of differently-abled children. Very uplifting post. Beautiful work thanks Jack!

  10. FANTASTIC! One of my all-time favorite clients is my friend with spina-bifida. Differently abled means she can play soccer and baseball on the specially built field of dreams in our neightborhood. It’s awesome!

  11. Great post Jack, and thanks for sharing.

  12. What a fantastic post!! I’ve been a professional photog for years, and specifically for special needs children who are medically fragile. I’m glad to see that these children are being more accepted! -Kerri

  13. As the father of a differently-abled child and someone who does some photography work with our local Special Olympics organization I have to say this is a wonderfully refreshing post, and I very much appreciate and agree with your whole approach. Thank you for sharing.

  14. I was pleasantly surprised to pop on Scott’s blog this morning and see such a wonderful article by such a nice person and great photographer. Thanks for sharing and inspiring Jack.

  15. A subject after my own heart strings. Thank you for sharing – gorgeous work. Gorgeous.

  16. Jack,

    Wonderful post, lovely images, wonderful work.
    Really tugs on the heart strings. Thanks for sharing and thanks for doing
    such heartfelt work, you really capture the kids so well.

    On another note, I really enjoy your joint column in NAPP.

  17. Someone visiting Mother Teresa called her a Saint during the course of their conversation. She took the person’s face in her hands and looking right into the person’s eyes said, “YOU are a Saint”! Was that you, Jack?

  18. Thank you so much for taking the time and sharing this. This has greatly touched my heart.

  19. Jack, awesome post and thanks for always responding to my questions, you are one cool dude!
    Ken

  20. Having worked and photographed Special Olympians for ten years, this is very much appreciated. It’s about seeing the real person, their spirit and focusing on the abilities and not the disabilities. Thank you for your blog.

  21. Thanks, Jack, for such an uplifting post. Key phrase for me, “and that’s the fact that they are all kids first and foremost”. Even as adults, all too often the differently abled get talked past rather than to, get viewed as a condition and not as a person. You clearly find this commission very emotionally rewarding and the images are very engaging so I hope you get to continue this work as long as you want to and thanks again for sharing.

  22. Wonderful post Jack. Thank you for giving back to these great kids and their families. If we all gave back in some way, the world would be a much better place.

  23. Thanks for this inspiring post, Jack. You’re doing great work, and it’s wonderful that you talked about it here. We sometimes need to be reminded that the differently abled are no different than us in the ways that matter….that they’re people or children first, and you’ve done that so well here.

  24. Thanks everyone for the nice comments. Greatly appreciated.

  25. Good to hear what you’ve been up to, Jack. I’m sure the families appreciate the portrait print very much, and I like reading about this kind of thoughtfulness. Cheers,

    Matt

  26. Those are beautiful and moving photographs of some lovely kids.

  27. A wonderful article and wonderful way to give back. Your work is amazing. Children bring out the best in the world … so nice to see you use your talents to tell that story from a different perspective. Thanks for inspiring other photogrpahers to reach out and give back in special ways!

  28. Thanks for making me a bit misty eyed. :)

  29. Jack, Thank you so much for sharing this with us. What a wonderful way to give back. Thank you for being an inspiration to me and many other photographers.

  30. Thank you for seeing them as the children they are and not as the labels that are always placed on them. Dignity and respect are so often missing for these kids lives, it cleared from your comments that you offer these qualities to all your clients.

  31. This was so great to read. My wife and I are currently in the process to adopt a little girl with Down Syndrome from Eastern Europe. We are in the process of raising funds and have a giveaway where folks who contribute can win a new iPad, Kindle, and a host of other great prizes. We are anxiously awaiting bring our new little girl home to be with us. You can follow this process if you like on http://calledyoubyname.blogspot.com

  32. Kudos Jack! And you are so right, first and foremost they are kids,
    kids who make the sun shine!

  33. Awesome assignment Jack…! I was actually a child psychology major in college. Worked very closely with a local association that dealt with children with learning disabilities of all kinds. I ran the aquatics program for them over the summer months and during the rest of the school year was involved in the weekend program for them. All of our work was geared to providing them a success oriented environment so that they could flourish. Was all very rewarding.

    Take Care…!

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