Special Children Special Portraits
August 1, 2011
Photographer Jenny Schomaker makes it her business to give back to the community. She accomplishes this via a number of projects that allow her to indulge in her passion for photographing children. For the past few years Schomaker has teamed up with Dr. Sudha Chandrasekhar of Gateway Pediatrics to photograph her patients, many of whom are kids with special healthcare needs. Some have cerebral palsy and some are missing limbs, while others have cleft palates and/or other issues.
After seeing Schomaker’s work in the nursery at Chandler Regional Hospital, Dr. Chandrasekhar hired her to photograph her young patients. “We teamed with Jenny Schomaker Photography to have several children photographed. The large canvases are displayed throughout our office as a tribute to these very special kids and their brave families,” explains Dr. Chandrasekhar. “I feel honored to be their pediatrician, and in some small way make a difference in their lives. For me, displaying these canvases is so much more meaningful than displaying more typical artwork on the walls.”
Portraits from 30 x 40 to 120 x 40-inchs hang inside Dr. Chandrasekhar’s office, where not only patients and parents can see them, but community healthcare leaders as well. An open house event featuring the portraits lets everyone come together, meet each other and share ideas. Although this project generates a lot of business for Schomaker, her reward, she says, is providing a few hours of fun for the kids and being able to capture their unique spirits for all to see. “I honestly think these children feel special by being photographed,” says Schomaker, who dresses her subjects in fun, colorful clothes for their sittings. “They feel special because they get to dress up. It helps them with their self-esteem and ability to interact with other people.”
Additionally, she notes that the sessions let the children and parents enjoy the photography experience itself, which is something most people take for granted. “One mother told me she doesn’t take her child to a traditional photo studio for pictures because it’s just too daunting. Some photographers don’t understand or have the patience to deal with her child’s special needs.
“Photographing special needs children,” Schomaker says, “is challenging and requires a lot of patience, as sometimes the children are deaf, or can’t walk, or hold their heads up or keep their tongues in their mouths. I love photographing children because they are so innocent and pure. And every day presents a new challenge and keeps me on my ‘A’ game. I work with the parents and try to feel the child’s spirit, which seems to work. For some reason I have a connection with the kids,” Schomaker admits. “I watch how they interact with their parents and see how they communicate with them. I try to communicate with them in the same way. However, there’s no set way to work with the kids as each one is so different.”
Recently, Schomaker, who works with natural light, a reflector and a Canon 5D and 85mm and 10–22mm lenses, photographed a family with three special needs children. “I photographed the children having a pillow fight on a bed, which is something I don’t think the kids have ever done before. Most kids play and have fun like that on a daily basis, while these children typically spend their days at doctor’s appointments. [The photo session] helps them be kids and have fun; it creates a sense of freedom,” she says. Dr. Chandrasekhar says her patients really respect Schomaker’s talent because they know how hard it can be to work with special needs children.
Schomaker describes her style as eclectic, fresh, fun and very simple. “I usually do not use props as I like to focus on the connection between the families—be it the parents, sisters and/or brothers. I am all about the moment and creating something with a family that is different—not just a ‘photo shoot’ but a time in the family’s life they will think back on fondly. With a little help from me to create the moment, those ‘cherished times’ can happen and be recorded
Schomaker wants to help educate the public with her photography. “My goals for the future include seeing more of the world (she’s already visited more than 10 countries) and making a difference for the better,” Schomaker says. In addition, she’d like to get her M.A. in Visual Anthropology so she can combine her love of photography with her fascination for people and different cultures. “I would love to have ‘Project Pink’ become a national non-profit company and not just an event through J Schomaker Photography (www.projectpink411.blogspot.com).
“We have more than 900 members and are still growing. Project Pink is a free community event that helps foster self-esteem in girls and women of all ages, shapes, sizes, colors and religions. The event includes classes on a variety of topics such as hair-styling, nutrition and bracelet-making, to help girls and women put their best foot forward.” Schomaker says she’s always been drawn to helping women be their best. “I would like my daughters to know if they listen to their hearts, they too can do and accomplish anything they want.
“I think the reason that is so important to me, especially now, is because of my spasmodic dysphonia [a voice disorder characterized by involuntary movements of one or more muscles of the larynx].” Though Schomaker’s voice no longer functions normally, she can still be heard through her photography. “I have this overwhelming feeling that my talent needs to be shared, and the things I have seen and learned need to be shared too.” Consequently, another project for Schomaker is her studio’s annual photography drive to support Operation Smile, a worldwide organization that helps children born with cleft lips and palates—the fourth most common birth defect in the world. In developing countries, 1 in 500 children are born with a correctable facial deformity. However, most families don’t have the means—and some countries don’t have the doctors—to perform the surgeries. Many of these children can’t eat, speak or go to school because of the defects. Operation Smile’s donors give these children the opportunity to live happier, more productive lives.
Schomaker’s “Family Portrait Month” fundraiser (for Operation Smile) takes place each October (http://www.familyportraitmonth.com/operation_smile.html), and for the past five years, she’s made a concerted effort to help those in her community understand what the organization is all about. “This is my small way to contribute.” To educate her clients about the organization, Schomaker shows children the Operation Smile video, which inspires them to want to help. “By taking and buying pictures, they can,” she says. “But it’s really up to the parents to educate the children on how the pictures play a role in community service.” Last year, though bookings were down due to the slow economy, Schomaker still managed to donate more than $1500 to the cause. “I know many photographers who have been affected by the economy, including myself. But I know if I give back to my community,” she says, “it will come back tenfold.”
To view Jenny Schomaker’s work and learn more about her projects, visit www.jschomaker.com.
Lorraine A. DarConte is a freelance writer/photographer living in Tucson, Arizona. Her work has appeared in numerous publications including, Rangefinder, Studio Photography & Design, Newsday and Tucson Visitors’ Guide.