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Shutterstock Stories: Jaren Jai Wicklund Reframes Life With Disability

Shutterstock is made possible by our network of over 55,000 contributing artists around the globe. In an effort to celebrate the personal stories behind the images in our collection, we're proud to bring you this monthly contributor spotlight series.

Our third installment of Shutterstock Stories highlights the work of photographer Jaren Jai Wicklund, who contributes lifestyle images using her family members as models. Her story, however, is also one of triumph: she often photographs her youngest child, Davey, who was diagnosed with Lesch Nyhan Syndrome (LNS), to raise awareness about genetic disorders and portray a positive outlook on disability in the media. 

We interviewed the Seattle-based contributor and mother of five, who refers to her camera as her "sixth child." Read on to hear more about her story and view a selection from her inspiring portfolio.

Shutterstock: How did you first get into stock photography?

Wicklund: I began contributing to Shutterstock when I realized it was the best avenue for getting photos of my little boy out there for the world to see. It was a fantastic arrangement: No time lost from my family; free models (although I do need to bribe my family from time to time — sadly, they outgrew the penny-per-picture plan); the ability to capture memories for our own family at the same time; stock agencies already have excellent websites with a worldwide clientele; and best of all, I get paid to do it! 

Do you photograph solely for stock agencies?

I am mostly concentrating on stock, but I used to do weddings for friends and family on the side. The downside of that is that people expect it for free or literally next to nothing, since they're friends. I've found that most of the people I know view stock agencies as a fearful thing, wondering where my photos will end up. I, in turn, have a blast finding them in children's books and magazine articles, especially when it's associated with an organization I already support. I take care with my photos and how I position my family in the shot. Does it look decent? Is it "safe"? That said, weddings take too much time away from my family, so I prefer to concentrate on stock with them as models.

Being a full-time, homeschooling mother with a disabled child allows me little time to set up for many planned shoots with a set theme. By the time the day is done and my little Davey is asleep, I have little energy but to edit photos, keyword, and upload. The photos I take usually need to come from my daily life and any outings we go on. My camera is my sixth child, and it travels with me. Time passes by too quickly with children. 

What are you able to learn about your family through photographing them?

That they love one another deeply, despite the usual squabbles over chores and who-ate-the-last-piece. Especially when it comes to little Davey. He is the most precious gift ever given to our family. This disease he has is so painful to watch at times that everyone in the family is always willing to give more of themselves to help take care of him. So when I have them pose with Davey, they all try to be the ones closest to him. Even my oldest son cannot resist! No one knows what tomorrow will bring and they all want to preserve every image of him they can.

How do you feel the media portrays people with disabilities in general? How do you photograph your son in a different way to put a positive or hopeful spin on life with disability?

LNS is such a rare disease and so very few people have ever seen anything like it. A leading specialist once described it as the disease that combines the worse of all syndromes and packages it up in one. Not only can they not sit, stand, walk, or run, but they also hurt themselves and others without being able to control their bodies. They try so hard to resist, but it is inevitable. The main issue is the biting of the lip. Without great care and prevention, these children will bite off their whole lips. Thus, most LNS families find relief through removing all their teeth. The self-injury comes in phases, so you will see some pictures of Davey with and without his lip guard and gloves. 

Despite all this, their minds are as sharp as a whip. They understand everything around them and can talk, although the enunciation is not very clear. The world may think someone this disabled physically must have mental challenges, also. This is why I mainly do microstock. To let people know what other disabilities look like. Most people know of Down syndrome and Cerebral Palsy, but how many have seen someone with all the gear my son has on him every day? How many have seen his arm and leg movements? People can be cruel, when faced with something they have never seen. I hope to put more pictures of him out there so some of that ignorance is removed. 

My son is always happy and full of the same joy of life as any little boy. He does not sit quietly, bored, in his wheelchair staring into space. He finds ways to improvise what he cannot do. He wrestles. He plays. He makes jokes. He is friendly and says hello to everyone he sees. He is a fun-loving little boy with a joyful outlook on life. This is what I found missing in the media. I wanted to capture the joy that a disabled child brings to the family. The hardships are great, but the rewards are so much more. 

I am truly hoping my photos of Davey will help raise awareness and compassion for disabled people so society could learn to have more empathy. They really are just as normal as anyone else, with feelings and emotions and a need to fit in.

What challenges do you come across photographing your family? 

They all know how much I love contributing to Shutterstock and are usually willing to help. The older ones feel a bit self-conscious when we're in public and I ask them to make a certain pose, and I have to tolerate some eye rolling. Davey loves having pictures taken. It is fortunate, since my main focus is on his disability and the joy he has despite his physical limitations. However, my oldest son, 17,  has always been somewhat of a serious philosopher, and unless I can give him a "reason" to do a certain pose, he refrains from being in front of the lens. Hence, very few of him!

Was the decision to photograph Davey a tough one to make?

Not at all. I am proud of him and how he looks. People have told us they've seen him in magazines and online on a regular basis, and it makes me so happy to see it's finally getting out there. He is my star model and he knows it! 

What kind of response have you had from the photographs of him?

The common thing people have told me is how happy he looks. Fellow LNS families have seen him online and think it is the cutest thing to have an LNS child depicting disability issues.

In what ways is the work you're doing rewarding for you and your family?

Ignorance is so harmful. And as I said earlier, people — especially children — can be so cruel. His life is not without challenges in the social area. Whenever we see someone different from the norm, we tend to shy away, ignore, or attack. Putting his photos out there helps people to visually see that there is beauty in disability. Sadly, this is something only disabled families can truly know, unless we share it with others. My other motivator is purely selfish. I want to pave the way for my little boy to be loved and accepted by others, just like he is loved by his family and those that know him. If there is anything I can do to make his life better, I will do it.

To see more of Jaren's work, explore her full Shutterstock portfolio »

 You can also view Jaren's original Shutterstock Stories video here.