Portrait of Spirit
Play 2 Podium Magazine

Photographer Mom Pairs Passions

Looking for the perfect activity for your child? Where children can be free to create, explore and capture their world as they see it? Photography is that activity. It mixes creative, intellectual and physical activity. It’s barrier-free and it’s fun for kids of all ages and abilities.

Toronto–area photographer Brenda Spielmann has had a passion for the camera since she was 15 years old. Born and raised in Brazil, she moved to Canada at 17, and enrolled in the Photography program at Ryerson University. After graduating, she engaged in a variety of projects from portraiture to editorial work for clients such as Toronto Life Magazine. “It’s my passion,” Spielmann says.

Now a mother of three – 14-year-old Emma and twins Kai and Dylan, 13 – Spielmann jokes that her life can be divided into two halves. “My life before and after the kids,” she laughs. After her son Dylan was born with spina bifida, this on-the-go mom saw how the art of photography could positively impact the lives of kids with disabilities. She sought a way to combine her two loves.

“For many years, I had it in the back of my mind that I was going to marry my two passions: children with disabilities and photography.” With little courtship, Spielmann jumped at her first opportunity to wed her passions in June 2007 when she offered to teach a month-long photography course at her son Dylan’s school. Eight children with varying disabilities participated in the program called My Favourite Part. Kids picked their favourite body part, create a photograph or wrote a poem, and framed their project. “The end result was very sweet,” she remembers. “Other kids would say ‘Look at what these kids did.'"

Soon thereafter, Spielmann’s life path brought her and Dylan through the doors of Toronto’s Bloorview Kids Rehab, a world-renowned facility. She was so impressed with the centre that she applied for a job there. “I just fell in love with Bloorview,” Spielmann admires. She didn’t get the job, but had a flashbulb idea. “What about me teaching photograph here,” she asked of Bloorview’s administrators. Light Writers was born.

The name Light Writers is derived from the definition of the word “photography.” Photo means ‘light’ and graphy means ‘drawing’ or ‘writing.’ Two-hour classes run once a week for six-week stints. Light Writers is an integrated program welcoming an equal number of children with and without disabilities. They are open to children in the community. Each six-week term focuses on a different aspect of photography. “It’s 100 percent inclusive,” Spielmann enthuses.

In addition to teaching the ins and outs of the camera, composition and lighting, Spielmann teaches post-processing techniques like Photoshop, and different aspects of photography. Since Light Writers began, the little shutterbugs have learned lighting, magazine and editorial photography, self-portraiture, and poetry photography.

It’s a marriage made in heaven for Spielmann, enjoying the skilful youngsters through their wonderful work. “I am so blessed to be able to be a part of this, to be able to guide them a little bit and let them go.”

But her love for her work is not blind. She describes herself as an honest teacher, who refuses to patronize the kids. “When you’re photographing hundreds of images, they can’t all be good,” she explains. “I tell them what works and what does not. In my class, everyone is treated equal. I have high expectations of each and every student,” Spielmann offers without reservation.

And likewise, her students love and respect her class the same way. Parents are quick to tell her that their child schedules their social life around the class. “Eyes sparkle in that class,” smiles Spielmann. “I’ve had kids say they’ve found themselves through photography.”

Photography provides the perfect match of active living and creativity. “Photography merges the creative with the physical. Light Writers encourages children to explore their own world by photographing things in their daily lives,” Spielmann tells. ”When you take a camera into your hands, you don’t just stay in one spot. You walk or wheel around; you bend down to get different angles of what you see. You actively immerse yourself in your world, or community, neighbourhood or backyard.”

Preparing to photograph is an engaging activity in and of itself. “A lot goes into photography,” Spielmann explains. “The kids are thinking and planning and taking advantage of a valuable opportunity to share their perspective. If you use a wheelchair, for example, you will have a very different view and vision from which you see the world.”

Photography is also a highly adaptive activity. “Digital photography is so accessible,” Spielmann says, in comparison to manual cameras. “Today’s cameras are easy to use, lightweight, and you can see and correct results right away.”

Adaptive equipment—clamps, tripods, buttons and releases—is generally standard off-the-shelf accessories, but can be modified for each photographer if need be. In the Light Writers program, the children work in pairs, so there is someone there to provide help if needed.

Not only is photography a great creative outlet and fantastic activity, it is also inclusive and empowering. “It has healing powers,“ Spielmann assures. “Photography, or any art medium, lifts barriers. When you see the work, you don’t see the person. You don’t see a wheelchair or facial differences. There are no preconceived judgements,” she emphasizes. “If the work is strong and good, everybody is equal.”

Photography can be a great opportunity for children to learn, grow, and express themselves. “It’s a medium that allows for self-expression.” A passionate expression of love for Spielmann.

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