A Different Lens: Finding Diversity through Photography

Contributed by Mary Birdsell

Cameras are magic. By capturing a moment in time, cameras give us the ability to explore actions and emotions in a way that we cannot in another medium. Each time I look through a lens, my perception of the world is altered. I can see and photograph something large, magnificent, like a sunset or something smaller, poignant, like a smile. Perception is a funny thing, it can change big things to become more accessible and alter smaller things to become more meaningful. In the instant a photograph is taken, a person is at their most vulnerable because a camera will show only the truth. Every emotion, from frustration to triumph, sadness to joy, is seen through the lenses of my camera.

Children in particular express each emotion clearly. I’ve photographed everything from weddings to landscapes, but working with children and their families has been the most rewarding. Through previous work, I was asked to photograph children that have special needs for a Finding My Way Books series, true stories that highlight inclusion and self-determination. I am fortunate to use my art to support diversity and literacy.

Once the story has been written, colors and shapes come to mind for the design and to enhance telling the story. For one book in particular, that was not the case until I took one of the final photos. The child was reaching her arms up in excitement, and I knew that feeling was one I wanted to carry through the design. Not only my perception, but my process was changed by this vivacious girl.

I hope that my photography supports children and encourages acceptance of differences. Diversity comes in many forms, and the pictures I take capture how easy it is for all children to be included, no matter their ability. Beyond that, images show how beneficial inclusion is for our society. Inclusion is finally on its way to becoming the norm and not the exception. At least, that is case in the United States.

Soon my perception will be altered in a very different way. I was invited to travel to Tanzania to take pictures for more children’s books featuring kids that have a disability. In the U.S., persons with disabilities have rights and there is a degree of understanding about their different needs; laws are even in place to discourage discrimination. But in other parts of the world, I know this is not the case. Children with disabilities are hidden away and ignored. I hope to find that this is not always so.

Having never traveled internationally, I know I’m in for a many surprises. Going to a country that is so vastly different from the United States will be eye opening in a way that I’m probably unprepared for. Then, I’ll pick up my camera and my view will become changed again. I hope to see children who are included with their peers and valued for their differences. I may not see those things, but whatever I see through the lens of my camera, I know I will be changed.

Mary Birdsell is a freelance photographer and a former Speech and Theatre teacher. She strives to create images that reflect the strengths of each child. Mary’s background in education, theatre and photography intersect as she visually creates our books. She uses colors and shapes to tell a story. For her each book is like it’s own theatre production. Mary has created eight books for Finding My Way books.  Visit https://www.findingmywaybooks.net/ for more information.

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