There are a couple of portraits I’ve created in my career that, by all rights, should never have been successfully executed. At the top of the list is this image of Carrie.

Carrie is severely affected by autism. Because of her need for constant stimulus she is in constant, unpredictable motion and attended to by a full time aide. I arrived at her home for our session and was introduced to her by her mother. She had big beautiful eyes that I immediately thought could be the center point of an amazing image. However capturing that image was going to be a remarkable challenge.

We decided their family room would be the best place for the portrait; a fan sat in the corner blowing at high speed, a chair swing hung from the ceiling, and tapes of Barney were constantly played on the TV. On the couch sat a box of Kleenex, which I soon discovered was for her to rip into strips and let fly in the wind created by the fan. This was the environment that satisfied her sensory needs.

Carrie was never in one place for more than a few seconds and at no time did she follow a predictable pattern. Her energy could be chaotic and for the first time in my career I was at a complete loss. Just how on earth was I going to find the ability to create this portrait?

It took a few minutes to come up with a plan and I figured the one place that had the best chance of her remaining still for a second or two was on the couch. I setup a two-foot by three-foot soft box to light the area. As I didn’t want to illuminate her aide who was constantly at her side, I placed a cloth grid on the front of the soft box so the light would stay focused in a single direction. After about five minutes of setup and testing I was ready to go.

I pressed the shutter button and looked at the back of the camera. Complete disaster. She was only halfway into the frame and blurred from her motion. Second frame, same thing. This continued for several minutes. I tried to follow her around the room, repointing the light, and doing anything to get just a single usable image. No luck.

It wasn’t long before she discovered the pleasing sensation of running her hands up and down the cloth grid in front of my soft box. But she did this so powerfully that my entire light stand would sway and start to tip. Several times I barely saved it from crashing to the floor or even landing on her. It was becoming a chaotic and dangerous scene and I began thinking this just wasn’t meant to be.

It’s hard to explain what happened next without sounding cliché. If you’re a photographer you may have had a similar experience. Amid all the uncertainty, doubt, and confusion, time suddenly stopped. With the camera to my eye and Carrie having moved to the couch it was as if she was holding a pose we had rehearsed for hours; her eyes wide open, a look of amazement on her face, her strip of Kleenex fully extended in the breeze of the fan and her hair blown just right. Without hesitation, or even understanding what I was doing, I pressed the shutter button and I knew that was the shot. As quickly as I had entered that suspended animation I was thrown right back into the chaos. I continued shooting with mixed results but it didn’t matter. I left having captured what I set out to, the essence of Carrie.

To date this remains one of my favorite images in my portfolio. More importantly, it’s a portrait her family loves and will have with them for many years to come! 

Charlie Cotugno is the owner of Charles Cotugno Photography in Woodinville, WA specializing in fine art portraits for families, high school seniors, and special needs clients. In addition he provides commercial photography services to businesses of all sizes. He is also the founder and board president of the non-profit organization Stories of Autism, a network of over 150 photographers from around the U.S. whose mission is to increase awareness, acceptance, and inclusion of people with autism spectrum disorders. For more information about Charlie and Stories of Autism please visitwww.cotugnophoto.com.