With her extensive experience in the fashion industry, exposure to media, and desire for diversity, film photographer Kamila K Stanley uses her experiences and network to now open the discussion of ableism in today’s media and visual culture in Special Needs. Alongside Chouette On Apprend, a French foundation for children and young adults for those with special needs and the kids she worked with, Kamila presents this colorful, fun and meaningful series to the Lomography Magazine.
The children pitched in for sourcing their outfits by sharing their hobbies and passions. They also built their set, also opting for toys and other objects for their design. Then the fashion editorial began, with each child (guided and accompanied by their parents and guardians) picking their own outfit and accessories, and free to pose however they wanted.
“As it stands, fashion remains an archaic and discriminatory industry. But used differently, it can be a powerful tool to elevate and uplift, and a highly creative means for children who seldom see themselves in media representations to address questions of identity and self determination. Each portrait is a statement: This is also who I am. This is also how I would like to be seen.”
Chouette on Apprend then worked with the authorities to secure permits and funds to showcase these photos all over Paris and Louviers in Normandie through billboards, becoming the series “Elever le Regard (Look Up)”: “Beneath their rainbow hues and playful appearence, the portraits are a call to reclaim public space, elevate the children’s stories, and celebrate them at the heart of society.”
Tackling ableism on children in the context of fashion is a very nuanced theme yet quite representative of the general reality of children and people with disabilities with how they are both treated and portrayed in visual media. Please share to us what stimulated you to come up with this project in the first place and how you got to work with Chouette on Apprend.
“Ableism” means rejecting people with physical or mental disabilities. They’re completely marginalized in society, and basically absent from magazines, mainstream culture, and fashion. As photographers, we have a huge responsibility to change things.
Chouette On Apprend is a French organization that supports children with special needs: autism, Down syndrome, and other disabilities. Because art and media are powerful tools for change, we began talks for me to shoot a photo series with them. It was super important for me to do something really collaborative with the kids. People with special needs are too often photographed in an almost documentary way — which puts them in a passive situation, with little choice in how they are portrayed.
I thought of organizing the project like the fashion editorials I shoot for magazines. The idea was to make something much more creative and rewarding — and above all to have the children actively participate in the process — creating outfits and building decors in which they wanted to be represented. The idea was pretty mad, but the foundation was super helpful in making it happen.
What was the most challenging yet most rewarding moment you faced when doing the project?
The photo sessions were such a blast — each child reacted in wildly different ways, we had to adapt and learned a lot from them.
One of our craziest, proudest moments was with Nicolas — a teenager who has severe communication problems. His carers were not sure how he would react to the camera. But once he entered the room, his face lit up. He was really decisive, and chose himself a rockstar outfit, with a glittery jacket and sunglasses. During the photoshoot, he completely opened up: suddenly he was strutting about the street, posing in his surroundings. Shortly after his photo session, there was a breakthrough incident. Nicolas suddenly started singing. His carers were in shock. Nicolas is non-verbal: nobody had ever known he could sing.
I don’t think any of us anticipated how overjoyed the children would be, and how genuinely liberating the experience could be for them.
One of the details that stood out for us was the part where the children get to pick their own clothes — what was it like for you while working with the children? Did you gain any insights/realizations while working with them?
First of all, the foundation helped me get to know the kids who wanted to participate: their personalities, hobbies, skills, and favorite things. It really helped me imagine outfits that they would like.
To put these outfits together, I reached out to stylist Carine Malonda. We turned to our network of contacts in fashion (brands and press offices with which we work regularly). We pitched the idea and asked to borrow rare pieces from their collections. We managed to gather a wide range of clothing — from Gucci and Yves Saint Laurent to emerging, avant-garde designers.
The children built and painted the decor. They also brought along toys and objects: plastic dinosaurs, Disney dolls, even DVDs of their favorite cartoons. On the day, they chose their own outfits amongst all the styling. Some were eager to pick their own look, others were happy for us to propose things. Some didn’t want to get dressed up and stayed in their regular clothes.
We also let the children pose however they liked. Maryame dazzled us with her disco moves; Amine threw his fist into the sky like a superhero. I think the clothes helped them loosen up and unwind a lot.
When you’re shooting adults or professional models, they tend to conceal their emotions. But the kids were completely euphoric. Working with them really reminded me of what huge impact photography can have on people.
What keeps you motivated when doing ambitious, meaningful and very detailed projects such as “To Be Special”?
I want to spend my time on earth making the world a fairer place. For the past few years, I’ve been shooting a personal series about my queer friends in Brazil, and how rising homophobia is affecting their lives. In my commercial campaigns, I’m very involved in the casting selection, and I give priority to under-represented profiles: plus-size models, queer models, older models or POC models, for example.
As it stands, fashion remains an archaic and discriminatory industry. But used differently, it can be a powerful tool to elevate and empower, a means for anybody to shape their identity. Here it helped the children answer important questions like “who am I?”, “how would I like to be seen?”. It’s important for me that my photography has purpose, and makes even the tiniest difference to help others.
Lastly, what’s next for Kamila K. Stanley?
I’m currently working on two personal projects. One I mentioned previously is about the Brazilian LGBTQ+ community and love in the time of hate. The other is about Europe, migration, and belonging in a post-Brexit context. I’ve been so so busy, traveling to lots of different countries to shoot it! I’ll be publishing them soon!