Several weeks ago I was approached by the Special Education teacher at Cullman Middle School, Kristen Tanner. Kristen knew that I created a photo earlier in the year as part of a project for the band teacher, Linda Bean, titled “Find Your Passion”. Kristen asked if I could possibly help her with a similar campaign. She wanted to focus on her student’s abilities, rather than their disabilities. It did not take long for the creative wheels to start turning and a plan was born for the “I Can” project!
Kristen Tanner is the kind of young teacher every parent would want for their child. She and her service dog in-training, Captain, frequently step outside the box to find ways to interact with her students and push them to dream big. Talking with Kristen, she expressed how she was always drawn to individuals with special needs, even as a young girl. As early as kindergarten she served as a “peer helper” to another student who had severe special needs. This young man became one of her best friends, which influenced her decision after high school to pursue a degree in special education.
Spend a little time with Kristen and it doesn’t take long to realize that she is passionate about her career choice and is a strong advocate for her students. Kristen writes, “I want to make an impact on the lives of my students. I want to refine their abilities and self esteem to show the world how incredible they are. I’ve taught many different students and each one has had special abilities that most people don’t know about. In my line of work, people often see these students only for what they can’t do. Even worse, they don’t understand them and are often “scared” of them... hence why so many of these students say they “have no friends.” People see them as a label like “autistic, disabled, wheelchair bound, drug baby, etc.” While those labels may be their “diagnosis”, it isn’t who they are. They’re people that CAN do AMAZING things. I’ve taught students that can solve calculus problems but have trouble reading, can solve a Rubik’s Cube but are unable to speak, can remember every conversation and lecture they’ve ever heard but cannot write their name. Society only sees these individuals for the can-nots, not the cans. My biggest goal in life is to change that. I want the world to see these students as people too. I want them to see people for what they can do instead of what they can’t. I want to show the world what they’re missing out on and that these students are the most amazing and genuine people. They are the best friends anyone can have because they only see others for the positives and they care deeply.”
To help Kristen with her project, I asked if I could photograph each of her four students on a green screen and then composite them into a scenario showing what they CAN DO. This was not an original idea. There are several wonderful organizations that do similar photographs of children battling cancer and other life-threatening illnesses, but I wanted to take this concept and apply it to kids who have spent their lives being told what they “can’t do” because of disabilities. Most often, these children are on the receiving end of bullying and their day-to-day lives are not easy. Without hesitation, Kristen accepted my offer and we created a plan of action, picked a date, and embarked on our project.
Working with teens with disabilities was a bit of a challenge. The first being the only available room for our session: the sensory room, which was a tight squeeze, but I made it work! Working to get the right expression from each one took time and patience because simply making eye contact can be difficult and rare for some of the children. I was very proud that I was able to produce a photograph of each boy individually and a group photo of them all together with their beloved teacher and her dog. At the end of the day, I felt that I had made a connection with each child, even for a split second, each one allowed me the opportunity to capture a glimpse into their soul.
After returning to my studio. I sifted through the photos and chose the most fitting one of each boy to create their portrait. With each work of art created, I stepped back in admiration. The look in each boy’s eyes and expressions on their precious faces brought me to tears. I quickly called Kristen and asked her if she could come to my studio. As I showed her the finished works, we reflected on each child and how his art piece helped to tell his story. All of the boys were excited about their photo session and eager to show off their skills. Alex P. dreams of playing ball in a big stadium. He throws the football with the accuracy of a seasoned quarterback. Troy loves country music and wants to work in the music industry. Alex C. can hit the bullseye with his bow and arrows and is a member of the archery team. Trey is a gaming whiz and can solve a Rubik’s cube faster than I can remove one from the box.
Having spent the day with the class, the mutual admiration between teacher and students was palpable, not to mention the by-product of Captain being a positive impact on them all. Kristen said that “A dog is a magnet, and one I never realized my students needed. When other students and individuals come up to us to ask about Captain, my students get the opportunity to socialize and show their knowledge. Through Captain, people are able to see my student’s abilities and they have made new friends. Without Captain, they wouldn’t have had this opportunity and I honestly don’t know if as many people would have thought to come talk to them. He’s making a huge difference in their lives by just being present, even though his presence is there to assist me with my own disabilities.”
Collaborating together, Kristen and I used the power of portraits to showcase a few of the skills and talents of her very special students. Kristen’s continued goal is to help each child adopt an “I CAN” attitude by focusing on their abilities rather than their disabilities. She will use these portraits as a way to encourage her students by reminding them of all that they “can do”. She will also display them as a way to motivate other students to look past the stigma of special education labels and instead recognize that these students all have skills, talents and a desire to be accepted by their peers.