family portrait


Diary of a Mom Taking advantage of a free sitting with a family portrait photographer tonight. Might be a good thing; might – well, NOT. Wanna lay odds?

Diary of a Mom Dear photographer, I didn’t spend 1/2 hr on the phone w u b/c i wanted to hear my own voice. When I said, my daughter is autistic; please don’t try 2 get us all looking @ the camera, I didn’t mean ask her why she’s not looking at the camera. #incredulous.

~ Last night’s tweets


I have some gorgeous photos of my children – you know, if I don’t say so myself. I have a whole bunch of wonderful photos of them with their Dad, both together and separately, and even some (like the profile picture on Diary) of me with them that I simply adore.

But all four of us in a single frame? Well, in our house that’s been the golden unicorn. One of us has always needed to be behind the camera (even if it was someone else’s camera) to get a photo of Brooke.

So when I heard about the free sitting with the supposedly fabulous (and typically VERY expensive) family photographer – on the beach no less – I figured we had nothing to lose. I hadn’t factored in my sanity.

When I called to set up our ‘ten to fifteen minute’ photo session (rolls eyes realizing I should have pulled the rip cord right then), the woman on the phone had some questions. “We want to get as much information as we can so that our photographer can use her brief time with you to the fullest,” she’d said.

“That’s wonderful,” I told her. “I’d really like to give you some background.”

I told her about Brooke. I told her that she has autism. Actually, I said that she’s autistic, but that’s a story for another day. I told her that we hadn’t had a family picture in years – that our only goal was to get all of us in one frame. I told her that I had no interest in a posed shot in which all of us were looking at the camera – and that it would likely be nearly impossible to get one anyway. I told her that it was EXTREMELY important that we not try to force it – that if we continually asked Brooke to smile or to look into the camera, we’d likely lose her completely. I told her that we’d be thrilled with a picture of the four of us interacting with one another – that if we could make each other laugh, I didn’t care who was where or looking where. I told her that my girl loves Sesame Street and that if all else failed, she thinks the word, “Poop” is about the funniest thing she’s ever heard. I told her again that I did NOT want to force it.

She was receptive. She thanked me for the ‘great information’. And then she apparently flipped to the next page of her intake questionnaire and read the next question aloud, “So what do you hope to get out of the session?”

Oh Lord. 

I hung up the phone, hoping that at least some of what we had talked about got through. It turned out not to be my only shot at the conversation.

The following day, the photographer called me directly to confirm our appointment. I was happy to make the connection and to ensure that she’d gotten all of the information that I’d given to her colleague. “So I assume that JoAnne gave you the background on our family,” I said, clearly making no such assumption. 

Dead air.

Hmm, little awkward.

“Um, would you like me to run through it again?”

“Sure,” she said. “That would be great.”

I told her about Brooke. I told her that she has autism. Actually, I said that she’s autistic, but that’s a story for another day. I told her that we hadn’t had a family picture in years – that our only goal was to get all of us in one frame. I told her that I had no interest in a posed shot in which all of us were looking at the camera – and that it would likely be nearly impossible to get one anyway. I told her that it was EXTREMELY important that we not try to force it – that if we continually asked Brooke to smile or to look into the camera, we’d likely lose her completely. I told her that we’d be thrilled with a picture of the four of us interacting with one another – that if we could make each other laugh, I didn’t care who was where or looking where. I told her that my girl loves Sesame Street and that if all else failed, she thinks the word, “Poop” is about the funniest thing she’s ever heard. I told her again that I did NOT want to force it. For good measure I added, “Seriously, we’ll have a heck of a time if we try too hard for the picture post card.”

Katie, sitting next to me, whispered, “It’s OK, Mama, you can say hell. I’m ten.”


As we got ready to go, I did my best from the clothing we had packed to make sure that we were relatively coordinated – or at least didn’t desperately clash. I opted against the Partridge Family matching get-ups. I’m still traumatized from that family photo in the seventies in which my parents and I are sporting matching gingham shirts and faded bell-bottom jeans. I shuddered typing that sentence.

We showed up on the beach in time to watch the family before us. I watched them follow the photographer’s instructions – the kids getting up and sitting back down, switching spots, scrunching in then sitting up taller. Mom just a little to the left, that’s it. A baby cried in the distance and Brooke meowed loudly in response. I handed her the emergency Teddy Grahams.

As she finished up, the photographer came over to greet us. With blinding efficiency, she’d moved us down the beach and to the spot where we would set up our shot before we could say, “Boo.”

I watched her pose Katie – “Just like that, sweetie, legs out to the right. Nope, other way. That’s it. OK, now you, pumpkin, come on over.” Like obedient sheep, Luau and I prompted Brooke to sit next to her sister. We helped her sit the way the lady was asking her to, gently guiding her legs in the right direction. I didn’t say a word as Luau and I fell in behind the girls, scrunching and leaning and a-little-to-the-lefting. I was incredulous, but I was also aware that we now had twelve minutes left.

“OK, everybody look at me!” the photographer said cheerfully. “Ready, on three now!”

I thought my head would explode right through my plastered-on smile.

“Brooke, look at my circle! Brooke, do you see my circle? Hey, Brooke, does Dad have stinky feet? C’mon, now. Brooke, where are you going? Can you come back to our picture, Brooke?”

After every shot – and often in the middle of one – Brooke ran for the hills. I couldn’t blame her. A couple of times, I nearly went with her.

And then finally, in the middle of a long string of equally inane utterances she asked, “Brooke, why aren’t you looking at my camera?”

It was all I could do to keep the words in my head from spilling out like machine gun fire.

Why isn’t she looking at your camera? Because she’s AUTISTIC, you effing half-wit. Just out of curiosity, why do you think I spent a half-an-hour of my time talking to you about this? Why do you think we haven’t had a family picture in years – or that our only goal was to get all of us in one frame? Why do you think I told you that I had no interest in a posed shot in which all of us were looking at the camera – and that it would likely be nearly impossible to get one anyway? Why do you think I told you REPEATEDLY that it was EXTREMELY important that we not try to force it – that if we continually asked Brooke to smile or to look into the camera, we’d likely lose her completely? Why do you think I told you that we’d be thrilled with a picture of the four of us interacting with one another – that if we could make one another laugh, I didn’t care who was where or looking where? Did you really – REALLY just ask my child WHY SHE’S NOT LOOKING AT YOUR %$#@! CAMERA?

I didn’t say a word because I didn’t trust myself to let one loose without all the others following.

We got up and took a couple of shots walking the beach and then called it a day. Brooke ran off after the birds and flapped her little wings, trying her darndest to follow them  in flight. Katie hammed it up in front of the water. I reached for my own camera and snapped away. My girls being my girls.

And then I quietly walked away and cried.

61 thoughts on “family portrait

  1. My God, Jess! I want that woman’s number. I want to scream at her until she drops. I am so hurt for you How the hell, could she NOT understand? I am so sorry that there are dolts in the world that are so hurtful to you.

    I love you,

  2. Crap, so here I am looking at a blank comment box, and there are no others ahead of me. The pressure.


    You know, mom word of mouth is a powerful thing. I don’t think this photog lives near you (vacation, right?) but the beauty of social media is that other people who would possibly have considered shelling out stacks of $$ for Miss Prestige Photographer may get wind of this and choose to take their valuable photog dollars elsewhere. Not all of them, because some people in this world have the luxury of lots of dollars and the concurrent luxury of living in their own isolated bubbles of self importance.

    But hopefully a few potential clients will learn about this businessperson’s utter unresponsiveness and take their business elsewhere.

    Picture that.

  3. Argh. Nothing like a reminder from a stranger. We had a similar issue on a Disney Cruise. I approached the photo assistant each time and explained our situation. Yet each time, the photographer did exactly what I had asked him not to do…force the issue and snap fingers and whistle. SHE IS NOT A DOG NOR IS SHE DEAF, SHE HAS AUTISM! Hopefully you can put this aside and enjoy your vacation. Maybe she got one shot that you can hang up…I am so grateful for digital cameras. Now I can just delete the photos of my lady staring at the wall or blinking or smiling as though I need to examine her gums.

  4. I’m sorry it didn’t go so well for all of you – and the fact that the photographer made you cry makes me want to punch him!!! I wish you would have let it all out on the freakin photographer!! I know you didn’t want to do that for fear of what you might say to him and in front of your own family – but really??????? Sometimes it really doesn’t pay to be nice, sometimes you just have to spell it out in no uncertain terms (in your case more than once!!) what you need! You are a much nicer person than me, I don’t think I would have lasted that long and the photographers camera may have ended up, shall we say, somewhere else!!!

  5. I had been dreading this post. I am so sorry. SO sorry. There are far too many in the world that aren’t aware, or just plain ignorant. Unfortunately I think you found someone with a bit of both. I can’t imagine that you are the first family that this photographer has encountered that has an *autistic* (I know…another day) child. It is a disservice. A terrible disservice. I’m so sorry, Mama.

    • I too have been dreading this post. It brings back memories of our Last Family photo-shoot for the church Directory ( But that’s another story)As I read your Facebook updates last night, and again as I read your post, I want even more than ever to get the ball rolling on my own photography home business, to include in my info I give customers that families with special needs are welcome, that I “Get it” , that Forced pose shots NEVER come out well, natural , full of life, interaction shots, relaxed come out 100x’s better..oh so much I would love to say, will have to start typing that up in case my dream ever becomes a reality…so sorry DOAM {{Hugs}}

  6. Jess,

    You have WAAYYYY more restraint than I. I am so sorry. Maybe this is a silly question, but could Uncle D. help you out getting a shot of all four of you?

  7. Here are some great photos from a photographer who knows how to photograph these great kids. Good hart Photography in Loudon, Virginia recently did a series for Autism Awareness Month featuring children with autism. If you scroll to the bottom of this page of photos, there are links to her other featured children. These are so beautiful and true.
    Jess, I found your blog because you visit my brother’s blog, The Good Kind of Bitter.

  8. And this is exactly why we have NEVER had a family portrait done and our AS son is turning 9yrs old and our daughter turning 7yrs old. How desperately I want one done, but afraid of something like this happening to us. You know, I’m NOT a photographer. But, I wish I was so I could do your family portrait the way YOU want it done. I do hope that you were able to get one shot you can hang on your walls.

  9. I’m so sorry. I was really REALLY hoping things would go better. I wonder, if you have the strength, if you could call her once you’ve processed it all and explain what happened. Awareness is one thing, understanding is another. Maybe once you can breathe, you can gently – in your own amazing way – tell her where things went wrong. For the next family.
    (or you could just send her this post…that would explain it all…)
    You’ll get that picture someday soon. I know you will. Your way on your terms with someone who totally understands.

  10. DOAM despite my education, and being raised with moral character and good values, there were times, that I would act as if I crawled out under a rock when the “R” word was used in close proximity. Okay maybe not that bad….Through your blog and other avenues ,wink wink, you have shown me that it is better to lead with grace and kindness when dealing with ignorance and I have done that, and quite successfully I might add. BUT, this? You did everything right. You shared more than enough information and the photographer acted as if she didn’t hear a word. And she obviously didn’t.

    I am sorry that you were not heard and that the picture of the four of you was not taken as you had hoped it would be. I am so sorry that your heart was broken a little last night.

    To walk away as you did and not say a word….wow.

  11. I’m so sorry you had to go through that. It is heart-wrenching and I feel your pain.

    My little boy was three and getting his pic taken at pre-school. They forced him to stick his little head through a picture frame they set up. I could see in the picture that he was TERRIFIED and crying. The photog made my kid cry at preschool because she Just.Didn’t.Think.

    Thank you for your blog. You write so well what we all feel.

  12. Dear Jess,
    When I read your title for Family Portrait I mist admit I felt a little bit defeated. I had thought about reaching out to you, as a reader who is also a lifestyle family photographer who refrains from phrases like “cheese” …I go for the authentic, the genuine emotion… The essence of the family. I thrive on it. I have always prided myself on the way I can easily relate to the children and allow them to be themselves as I shoot the family in what I call the “candid by design” technique. I’m so sorry you had such a disappointing experience (and I’m surprised anyone offers fifteen minute family portraits… with children involved? Seriously?!) Look me up,, and I’d be happy to take your family photo this summer. Actually, I’d be honored… You are a rockstar mama… And you deserve the freebie. (Except mine will be the real deal, not some 15 minute experience for self promotion.) Happy Mothers Day from me to you 😉 -Kathleen

  13. I think this is one for Yelp. You can post an anonymous review and go to town. It’s not mean to her; it’s helping others realize the value of listening to their customers and communicating effectively – especially when those they shoot might not be able to do so under duress.

    If I were there, I’d hold the camera and a farty noisemaker and we’d see what we could get. FWIW, I *know* there are photogs who are wonderful and who “get it.” That picture will come.

  14. Oh, honey, I”m sorry the photog was a self-important ass. BTW, you should totally take up Kathleen Connerton’s generous offer! I just looked at her site…GORGEOUS, rich, full of life and vibrancy…very much like your family! xo

  15. these kind of people make the world so unpleasant. and it’s frustrating they’re considered to be the successful and normal ones, the morons who can’t listen and hear something you’ve clearly communicated.

    a loathesome person, this over-paid, dense psuedo-photographer.

  16. I’m so sorry about this! Not a woman to be taking pictures of any family if she’s so insensitive and unable to hear your words or see what is happening. I know they won’t be professional, but if you want some casual beach family photos this summer, nothing would delight me more than to join you and your family at the beach with my camera and play. Hugs to you all.

  17. On a lighter note, Jess, MacKenzie thinks “poop” is the funniest word ever too! Maybe you all should have yelled it at the photographer!

  18. Love you. Take Kathleen up on her offer. Seriously. You know we all want to help each other. Take the help when it comes girl. xoxo.

  19. oh a Family Portrait,what a dream. We tried last week, with my son’s First Communion approaching, I wanted nice pictures in the chruch and then we all went to the park to take our “family” one. I got all our coordinating outfits and everyone looked beautiful, then I left my daughter to get her dress on last. (She doesn’t like “girly-flowy-flowerly” dresses, so I put on this beautiful white dress with yellow flowers, an even more beautiful matching big bow on her hair, well, she started to lose it and proceeded to TAKE OFF the dress in the middle of the park. So, while I wait to see how our family picture came out, I am not going to care that she ended up wearing a simply-frompy-not matching- blue dress. My only hope is that maybe he capture a glimse of her satisfying smile when she took off the dress.

  20. I felt so bad for you. It just made me think how little people really listen these days. I agree with other posters, let people know about your exerpience with this photographer. NO matter how popular and talented they are they should always put their “customer” first.

  21. We just got back from the neurologist (amazing man) where he said, “You can’t just demand that a child looks at you. You have to earn it.” And with that, he showed me exactly how you earn it, and Noah rewarded him with a dazzling smile and giggles.
    You need a photographer who knows how to earn it, baby. They ARE out there. And you will love your pictures when you find the right one. 🙂

    • I *love* that quote!

      And I too hope that you find a photographer who knows how to earn it… the offer from Kathleen Connerton might just be your winner… check out the lovely family photo to the right on the front page of her site, where the son IS NOT LOOKING AT THE CAMERA but the family-love just beams right on through!

  22. I am just so sorry that people don’t LISTEN! You do such a great job of educating people – all they need to do it LISTEN!!

  23. I agree with the commenter above, you should Yelp the hell out of her ignorant arse! My blood was boiling when I read your FB status last night. I am so sorry 😦 Lots of hugs and love to you

  24. Obviously this photographer is not the expert *she* thinks she is. I am soooo very sorry that despite all of your prep work, things didn’t turn out as you had hoped. What this woman failed to uunderstand is that some of the best photos are those of unplanned, natural moments, after all, that IS life. I am lucky enough to have a sorority sister who owns a large ABA business, and who is also (how she has time I have no idea)a professinoal family photographer. She also has a little one with Autism, so she gets it for sure. She took the most amazing pictures of my kids, and some of my most favorites are the ones where they aren’t looking at the camera. We worked for all of the pictures, there’s no doubt about that, but the results of the un-posed photos were fantastic. And, she got it – in her approach, attitude, and in the final product. for anyone on the West Coast . . .

  25. I feel your pain. My son is 14 and has autism along with learning disabilities. Our last family picture was when he was about 8. I vow to give it a try this summer. People can be so rude with their lack of concern. My son carries his Nintendo DS everywhere. When we go out to eat, he likes to sit close to an outlet to plug in. Some hostesses are very understanding about it, others could care less. We try not to stress over it too much, but its the little things that are trying. Love you blog.

  26. Hmmmm,I feel for you & your family. I believe the photographer was probably taught that the “planned pose,composed,stiff” photo is the best. Sounds like maybe she also has no clue what Autism is or maybe has had no dealings with anyone who has it. If you’ve never met anyone who has autism then it’s a really hard concept to grasp. Until I had my oldest boy who has autism,my world was a very narrow, small world.Consisting of just neuro-typical people and their neuro-typical ways. 🙂 However,he has greatly expanded my world and mind.I am an amateur photographer myself and would love to be able to take pics of families who have differently-abled individuals in them. Hopefully one day I’ll achieve that goal. Until then,my children are my main subjects. Hope you find a good photographer for your family. However,in my honest opinion,the pics you took of your girls are absolutely beautiful!

    • I’ll bet if you advertised such a sitting, people would love it. I hesitate with so many ‘offers’ because the explaining is so much work and so taxing for me. But when someone’s ad is geared towards us, I jump! I pressure to be normal?? seriously?? As a parent, having a photographer who can see the person behind the disability (hate that word) is a blessing!

  27. The same thing has happened to me, just not with a photographer.

    I didn’t protest b/c my heart was broken and that hope that I hang on to was in a precarious place. I had offered this woman the chance to be compassionate to our situation. I had explained and confirmed. But it was as if I’d said nothing, explained nothing. She didn’t get it, I guess, or didn’t care. Either way, interrupting the process now and trying to explain AGAIN was surely futile.

    So I let it happen. And then I cried. I think I also felt discouraged for my boy. His future hinges on whether or not people are willing to accept and listen. Thankfully, after I’d healed a little, I remembered that this woman was the minority. Most people I meet are eager to understand. And I forgave her, for whatever her reasons, her inability to stand still and listen is a disability all it’s own. She must be missing out on so much.

  28. Reminds me of my granddaughter’s last school photo. She also has autism. Her teacher made sure to tell the photo company people NOT to call her special ed class until they were actually ready for them. But no, that was too much to ask. So we have pictures of a very exasperated little girl, who is trying really hard to hold it together, but her discomfort is painfully apparent in the photos. So sorry this happened to your family!

  29. I’m so sorry for your experience and I’m happy to see that you are getting so much encouragement. I know this feeling, too. My son has asperger’s that’s part of why I became a photographer. Most of my favorite pictures of him are when he’s reading a book and I’m thankful that with lots of practice, I’ve been able to get him to respond to me so that I can manage pictures of him. Unfortunately, I can’t clone myself to take and be in my family shots but just know that there are photographers out there who are sensitive to these needs so don’t give up 🙂

  30. I have a lot of things to say about and to that photographer. The synopsis: GRAAAAAARRRRRRRRRRRRRRRGGHH!

    Also, it might be worth investing in a cheap tripod and a wireless remote timer trigger for your digi-cam. Then you can take photos of all of you, all by yourselves, simply by being yourselves approximately in front of the camera that’s on….and just clicking away at the little thing hidden in one of your hands.

  31. **sigh** it’s such a shame that some people just don’t listen, let alone understand. I hope you get to have your family photo eventually. What an absolutely awful experience. Take care xx

  32. we have only one person we let take photos with Sammy. we have tried it and it always.ends.badly. every.single.time. By himself it isn’t so bad and we had some great shots taken by one woman. But family pictures we have only found one. I’m in southern MA and there are plenty of people here to claim they can but very very few ever can. good luck getting the family photo

  33. Wow I love both miracles in this story! Well theres two when you look at it from my point of view at least.

    I am a Photographer in Kansas, and I had a photo shoot yesterday that became a disaster! The parents did not warn me about the Two year old that had autism! I just saw her as very hyper, and just wanting to explore everything in site. Our Photo session was starting off as a disaster! But after the years of trying to take beautiful photos of young children I have learned that letting them go and do there own thing and taking photos from a distance is the best way to get those magical portraits. This child from yesterday however refused to even look at the camera or even look up so that we could see her face. I ended up getting some good shots thank goodness, but afterwards I talked to the mother, and thats’ when I found out I had just had my first experience with photographing an autistic child. Trully an adventure!

    I just googled “How to photograph children with Autism” and found your Diary. Looking at Kathleen’s portraits of your family gave me inspiration, and I know now that letting the kids just do their thing is the best. I am still going to be looking for more tips and tricks for Autisic individuals, but I just wanted to let you know that your Diary has trully helped me determine what will be best for the family so that I can make sure I get those family portraits that the family is desiring. I felt so bad for the family yesterday that only left with a couple working family portraits, and one or two good ones of their children.

    Thanks again!

    Amanda Lee Photography

  34. Some of you guys are being very hard on the photographer, it is very difficult to photograph autistic kids. Not impossible, but some photographers have never had contact with autism before so how are they suppose to know exactly what it iis. Myself as a photographer find it very challenging to photograph autistic kids. Today I had a mom of an autistic kid who was never satisfied with his kids pictures because it wasn’t a real smile, because the kid was looking sidewAys, up, down, etc. there was no way of me communicating with this kid, how was I suppose to get this kid laughing , if his own mom who is fully familiar with autism wasn’t able. Understand us a little when you bring your autistic kids, it’s extremely frustrating challenging and disappointing when we try our best and cant get what you, as a mom desire.

  35. Dear Diary of a Mom,

    I have to write you a big thank you! I’m a photographer in TX who found your site while preparing for my first shoot with a family with autistic children. Thank you for sharing your experience–it helped me create a good “lifestyle photography” experience for that family.

    I also have to say that the reason that I picked up the camera was due to a bad (horrible!) portrait session with my own child and I never want anyone to come away feeling as I did that day.

    Thank you again for your inspiration!
    Michelle G.

  36. Pingback: Photographing Children with Autism or Sensory Sensitivities » Images from Amy

  37. I’m glad that I read your post. I do have a photo shoot with an autistic boy in a few weeks and wanted to educate myself on how to approach autistic children. I spoke with the mother and she mention that her son is responsive and will look at the camera. As a photographer that wasn’t of a concern. Guess I just wanted to research so I don’t have to put the family through a horrible experience as I read this post. I will keep y’all posted of our photo shoot.

  38. I read your story and bless you. My son has three autistic children and I figured I would try to find a photographer who specializes because I just want one pic with them all three in one pic. OK, reading your story, I am happy with them all in different pictures, I will just collage them. We don’t have a lot of money and if you say you went thrun this with a expensive person, I am not going to try. Bless you again. Just hold on, if the timing if right it will happen. Blessed be

    • We did wind up finding someone wonderful (well, she found us.) The trick was always to not try to pose a shot. We have wonderful photos of all of us just being ourselves together and I love them. 🙂

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