“There are such negative connotations attached to disabilities,” explains photographer Stephanie Mullowney, “and such a misconstrued vision of what society deems ‘acceptable’ and/or ‘perfect’. Her Paper Dolls Photography project has endeavoured to show that all children, without exception, are beautiful. “My goal is to change the perception of how individuals with disabilities are viewed through these photographs.”
Mullowny’s love for photography emerged two years ago and has, in her own words, “a bitter-sweet genesis.”
On a warm April night in Tennessee, Mullowny gave birth to her 6lbs 13oz daugher, Hannah Grace. She was born with Down Syndrome, and at the time of birth had 3 holes in heart and an abnormally high white blood cell count. During pregnancy there were warnings that Hannah Grace had been “measuring small” and that there was a chance that she would be born with the condition.
On the day of her birth, Mullowney didn’t shed tears of sadness, but of joy. “The moment they laid her on my chest, I knew,” she says, “and you know what? I loved her even more.”
Her husband unfortunately did not see things the same way and according to Mullowney, left his wife and newborn baby only five days later, stating that the child was “defective”. This left Mullowney in a painful predicament. Caring for Hannah Grace alone, and with no steady income for several months while she looked for work, Mullowney was forced to rely on the kindness of various family members for lodging, and depended on the WIC federal grant system for food.
“I felt so helpless and desperate for a better life for her,” says Mullowney recalling how donations from a local charity group were the only way to provide Hannah Grace with any presents for her first Christmas.
Rather than feel any kind of anger about her daughter’s condition, Mullowney continued to express her love for Hannah Grace through the medium of photography. Using her iPhone and a decent camera she was gifted at a baby shower Mullowney proudly declares that she “took literally hundreds to show the world how beautiful she really was.” Once she shared them online, the compassionate response worldwide was overwhelmingly positive.
“People were pouring their hearts into ours and sharing their stories with us for encouragement,” says Mullowney, “The more pictures I posted the more people started commenting and asking who my photographer was.” Being the photographer herself, Mullowney started to realise that she had the talent to turn professional.
At first things were a little messy. On the advice of her boss, who worked as a professional videographer Mullowney purchased some better camera kit.
“It took me 20 minutes to get the strap attached to it!” she laughs, “I thought to myself ‘what in the world have I gotten myself into?’”
Since those awkward days Mullowney has gotten a little more savvy with gear. “I’m a Nikon junkie” she explains. “The lens I shoot most with is my 85mm. I also have a Nikon 50mm in my bag of goodies.” Asking whether she’s got any favourite lighting equipment she answers, “I’m a natural light photographer, so as of present, I don’t use light kits or flash…ever.”
From little to no starting knowledge, Mullowney has tailored her technique to the exact science of a pro. “I have specific times of day I prefer to shoot,” she says “and no other time will do. I prefer quality over quantity 100% of the time.” She also demonstrates the trained instincts required of the job. “If I have to lay down in a creek with my camera a quarter of an inch from the water, climb a tree in flip-flops, or balance on a single peg of wood in a barn with one leg, I’ll get the shot,” she says.
The dedication to learn how to use her kit properly and follow the business plan she scribbled on coffee-stained notebook was a matter of faith and perseverance. “I made it my mission,” she says “to prove to the world just how beautiful these individuals are.” In March 2016 she opened her photography business and within a few months Mullowney has been featured on local TV and radio multiple times for her work. However, rather than take the credit for her success, she believes a larger plan was at work.
“[God] has given me a talent I didn’t not even know I had,” she explains, “He has made a way for me to support my daughter and at the same time support others by raising awareness regarding the misconception of our children.“
Part of the support Mullowney provides is by volunteering her camera skills for non-profit organisations including The Down Syndrome Association of Middle TN and The Best Buddies Organisation. Mullowney says these groups, who provide physical, financial and personal help are vital for families coping with the requirements of special needs children. “They fight for us,” she pronounces, “then when we are strong enough, they fight with us.”
It is this reciprocal empathy that Mullowney brings with her to her work. Due to her personal understanding she is able to connect with her subjects instantly. One of the delights of working with special needs children, she says, is their purity.
“They are real and do not put on a fake show,” says Mullowney, ”I know that when I photograph them that the image will be genuine and the very raw version of their best selves.” Unlike adults who can change who they are from situation to situation, Mullowney believes that the children she photographs actually have an advantage. “They are who they are all of the time, and that’s what I love most. They perceive others as people and not labels, so why shouldn’t they deserve to be viewed the same?”
For anyone who’d disagree, Mullowney has a pretty unassailable fact to point out.
“Correct me if I’m wrong, but aren’t we all imperfect in some way?” she says “ I know I have plenty of flaws. How highly must one value themselves above another to cast such judgement on someone who ‘misses the bar’? To say ‘This person is lacking because he/she is different than I am.’ How can one do that?”
Mullowney’s message has resonated through the special needs community with clients having flown from across the United States to be photographed by her. “People are drawn by the story these photographs tell,” she explains.“They see the photograph and think, ‘That’s how I want my loved ones portrayed – to been seen with non-judgmental eyes for the beautiful people they are.’”
Mullowney claims that the magic in her pictures doesn’t come from the photographer – the feelings they elicit are drawn entirely from the subjects she’s just fortunate enough to meet.
“Each photograph tells a story,” Mullowney tells us, “Each story touches a heart. And when a heart is touched, it is changed, and when the heart is changed so is the mind. That is my goal.”
You can find out more about Paper Dolls Photography here