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National Geographic – Shooting the Shoot

Sydnee Schwartz, First Place Social Media Specialist & Photographer

Emotion is an important part of digital storytelling. It is essential to telling the right story with the right amount of power, making it impactful for the photographer, subject and viewer.

National Geographic’s May 2020 issue shares the powerful story of “Coming of Age with Autism” in its 27-page feature that includes several images from First Place–Phoenix. In December 2018, renowned National Geographic photojournalist Lynn Johnson visited First Place–Phoenix as part of her feature looking into the lives of adults with autism from across the country.

At the time, I was a senior at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, earning my Bachelor of Arts in Journalism with a focus on digital media. As a student, I spent many hours volunteering at First Place, photographing and documenting many of our firsts—groundbreaking, opening ceremony, first Night to Shine prom—among other signature events.

I joined Lynn for her one-on-one interview and a portrait session with Lauren, then on an outing to the mall where she documented Lauren, in all her festivity and joy, trying beauty products at the Lush store. I quickly learned how to capture moments with special populations while respecting the subjects and communicating genuine emotion about their experiences.

In my current role as First Place social media specialist, I use Lynn’s methods to document everyday life at First Place in what I hope are powerful and memorable ways for you, our community and our cause.

Enriching the Story with Context

One of the most important things I learned from Lynn was providing context to photos to richen the story being told. With the right amount of context, the viewer can get the entire story from a single shot.

Matt, First Place Apartments resident, is often one of the first residents to register for community life activities. These are some of my favorite photos where he’s in the moment, enjoying himself, learning with his peers and providing context for the story of his growing independence, personal development and joy-filled days.  

Capturing Emotion

Jenny is direct in expressing herself—what’s on her mind and what she wants to do. In moments worth capturing, she shows great emotion, especially when enjoying herself at First Place events.

These images help convey Jenny’s true feelings of being welcomed and accepted. Seeing her smile or her eyes light up with pride and joy is infectious and creates a lasting connection with the viewer.

Developing Relationships to Create Natural Moments

My biggest takeaway from Lynn was the importance of taking the time to develop relationships through simple conversation with subjects so that they feel comfortable with both photographer and camera, allowing natural moments to happen more spontaneously.

I took that approach with Christy—a resident I photographed often—before shooting an event last spring, catching up with her, asking what she was excited about for the day and if she would show me some of her art. Once the event started, Christy seemed to forget I was sticking around. She was in her element, at ease with me and my camera in her personal space.

Observing and learning from Lynn, a master in action, was an unexpected and memorable real-world experience—and a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. As today’s children with autism transition to adulthood in unprecedented numbers, the world must better understand the challenges and triumphs of the journey through the lens of individual and family experiences—and pioneering properties like First Place. I’m honored and grateful to do my part!

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