Promise Christian Academy is a small private school that serves the needs of children with severe, often multiple, disabilities. Think Autism, Down Syndrome, and Cerebral Palsy, though the school is keen not to define its students by their conditions. A few months ago, byFaith magazine sent me to photograph those students (story here), to capture a sense of the dignity and self-empowerment that Promise strives for.

It’s a cliche to say that children like this are “special”. I’ve always thought that term sounds like a euphemism. But when asked to describe the kids I photographed, that’s the somewhat clumsy word that kept surfacing. These kids often cannot or do not communicate the way most of us do, and the experience you have being face to face with them, doing your best to find some small way to connect, is elevating and a little bit spiritual. So yeah – special.





When I was there, Promise occupied a series of fairly small rooms inside another school. (They have since launched a capital campaign and approved plans to build a permanent home.) The classrooms are intentionally cozy, but from a photography standpoint it was cramped and chaotic, overflowing with tiny desks, drawings, books, trampolines, and therapy equipment. I wanted to make carefully lit portraits on a studio background to put the emphasis entirely on face and body language, and when we first walked in I thought, “No way, there’s just no room.” But the faculty were incredibly encouraging, giving us the entire tiny cafeteria to use as our 10 x 15-foot studio. The kids must have eaten lunch around and behind us, which may explain why Lily is holding a peanut butter and jelly sandwich in this picture.



Here’s what the set looked like. We used five lights, my favorite being the giant strobe with fresnel lens, just a gorgeous light source. SUCH a pain in the butt, though, weighs probably 45 pounds. Not at all a location light. Five lights for one subject isn’t crazy, it’s carrying all this gear out on location up two flights of stairs and into a tiny school that’s a little crazy. It took us most of the morning to load in and set up.

Theo standing in.

From the front, Theo sitting in.


180° view looking back toward camera. You can see the seamless backdrop at the edges. (Click to enlarge.)

The pictures made it worthwhile though. And then there was this feedback from art director José:


Dear ADs: Please send us emails like this when you like the work. It makes us so, so happy.

See the rest of this series on the Stories page – HERE.