Thursday, February 4, 2016

Look again: 'What I was teaching was about seeing'

By Louise Kinross

In 2007 photographer Brenda Spielmann began an innovative program at Holland Bloorview that brought together children with and without disabilities to take digital images. She knew photography was an accessible medium because her son Dylan (above with twin brother Kai) has a disability. More recently, Brenda told me she was starting a project that would involve taking mother and child portraits. Some of the pairs would include children with disabilities. I spoke to Brenda to learn more about why parents of kids with disabilities may want to consider photography—for themselves and their kids.

BLOOM: What is your favourite kind of photography?

Brenda Spielmann: I love storytelling, and storytelling to me involves portraiture and a very personal documentary style.

BLOOM: Why is photography a great art medium for disabled kids?

Brenda Spielmann: The reason I began the program at Holland Bloorview is that digital photography is so accessible to children with disabilities as a form of expression and a voice. In the old days, photography was done in the dark room and you stood over trays of chemicals to develop the film. With digital they can do it in their wheelchair and it doesn’t require a lot of dexterity. It allows them to enter the social world because they can take photos of whatever they want, just like everyone else, and post them on Facebook and Instagram and be part of a social conversation. To me it was this entryway that fights isolation that was so important. Regardless of the disability, there is often isolation.

BLOOM: How is photography possible for kids with little hand control?

Brenda Spielmann: Now it’s even more accessible because you can use an iPad with a large screen and an app that allows you to press anywhere on the frame to take the photo. The iPad can be secured with a tripod on a chair or on part of the frame of the chair. One girl in our program wasn’t able to use her hands at all and she became the director and would choose how to compose the shot and said ‘press the button now.’

BLOOM: What was the name of the program?

Brenda Spielmann: I called it Light Writers. When you split the word photography in Latin and Greek, photo means light and graphy is drawing or writing. Photography means to write with light. So I said we’re the Light Writers.

What I was teaching was about seeing. We get so used to everyday life that we take things for granted, or we’re jaded, and we stop seeing. I taught them to see everyday life in the smallest details.

BLOOM: How can photography be beneficial for parents?

Brenda Spielmann: It can be used as a form of expression and to document change in your child. Photography has a wonderful element of surprise. When looking at the photo afterwards,  it may reveal something that you had no idea about.

If you have a child who is non-verbal, the child can take photos of things and objects and you can use that as a tool of communication.

BLOOM: I was thinking that we don’t often see images of kids with disabilities around us. At least in the media.

Brenda Spielmann:
I have been thinking about this as well. I think we need to look at images of disability more and more so that they become normal and everyday and people become desensitized and comfortable with them.

BLOOM: Is that part of the purpose of your new mothering project?

Brenda Spielmann: The main thing for me with disability is that it’s about isolation: isolation from the point of view of the person with a disability and the parents. And being invisible. It’s ‘hush hush.’ It’s still stigma. People become shunned in a way. It’s not talked about but it does happen.

I want to photograph mothers of children who are able and disabled and see if something is different. I don’t have a plan on the outcome, I just have an idea.

My idea is to take very traditional portraits. I’m thinking in terms of the whole field of renaissance paintings that glorify the mother, and seeing what comes up because children move and moods change.

People talk about the child with a ‘problem.’ I just want to show the beauty and love of it.

BLOOM: What do you hope people take away?

Brenda Spielmann: My goal ultimately is that the relationship between the mother and child is beautiful—so that a mother of a child with a disability produces the same feeling as a mother with an able or ‘normal’ child as people call it.

If you’d like to participate in Brenda’s mothering portraits, or to learn about her workshops on photographing your family, e-mail Brenda at


Brenda is a highly creative person and sensitive to her subjects. Her Light Writers program was extraordinary and I know this next endeavour will bring her the recognition she deserves: and shed some light on the isolation experienced by those with disabilities and indeed, their families.