A local photographer is on a mission to make sure children with special needs know they’re beautiful – and she’s doing it with a camera.
Stephanie Smith is an office manager, but in her free time she takes photos. Lots of them.
Smith takes photos of everything you’d expect – newborns, families, couples, weddings – and charges around $125 for an hour of work, but there’s a completely different side to her photography – some photo shoots are free and only for children with special needs.
“It’s to make them feel important. Make them feel special, make them feel original, and to make them feel no different than any other kid,” Smith explained. "I know the financial strains that special needs families, disabled families have, and it's a luxury to be able to get family portraits done.”
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The self-taught photographer started donating photo shoots six months ago.
By Smith’s account, she was troubled after reading a story about a photographer refusing a customer with special needs.
"I put it out on Facebook that I was willing to donate special needs photo shoots, and the amount of people that reached out to me was completely insane.”
Smith said some people told her they didn’t hire professional photographers because “they felt scared or intimidated” or worried about how they would be perceived if they “put their children's battle out there."
Smith was convinced she could help, in part, because she understood the concerns.
"I have a disabled sister,” Smith said. "She became paralyzed from the chest down. With a rare disease called transverse myelitis it's when your body attacks its spinal cord."
"Ever since then,” Smith explained, “I just felt like I have to lend my hand out to people in need because we were in need.”
Three times a month Smith does shoots for families who have children with special needs. She never takes a penny for it. The only thing Smith asks - is for a picture of her own - one with each child she photographs.
So far she has collected 16.
The single mother finds childcare for her son, and meets families from the DMV area for an evening of photographs.
One of those photo shoots happened last Wednesday – with Shane Lapsley and his family.
Lapsley is 12 years old. He also suffers from Osteogenesis Imperfecta (OI) – or brittle bone disease.
"We didn't find out until he was two weeks old, in the NICU,” explained Lapsley’s mother, Christina Lanham. “He was born with nine broken bones."
Over the past 12 years, Lapsley has broken close to 60 bones.
“I can’t do anything crazy,” he said with a smile. "I can't like do anything that's going to hurt me and stuff.”
On Wednesday, Lapsley and his family met Smith in an Annapolis park to take photos. It’s a seemingly normal family outing, but for Lapsley’s family this is extra special.
Christina Lanham says she started setting up the photo shoot last winter, but every time something came up – a fall, a banged up nose, a broken tibia.
“It's just, one thing after another,” Lanham said. “When we get [Shane] and he's healthy and happy, these are such good moments for him.”
Thanks to the brown haired woman hunched behind the camera, a few of those moments will be captured forever.
“We almost got it!” Smith yells. “One, two, three –”