Nyla Jane is three years old. When she was only two, she dragged a ladder up to a fence and tried to climb over it all by herself. She’s daring like that. She recently went to a carnival with a bouncy house, and as she was falling asleep, she confided in her mom, “I love bouncing the most.” Salt Lake City photographer Stephanie Woodward told us both of these stories about Nyla Jane, and she told us another one too:
Nyla Jane always tells people her favorite thing is “cookies,” even though she doesn’t eat them herself. For medical reasons, Nyla Jane is unable to swallow liquids and most foods, so she gets her food through a G.I. tube. She likes getting cookies so she can bring them to her older brother Sammy, who loves them.
Nyla Jane’s mother, Danna, is part of the Feeding Tube Awareness Foundation, and Woodward photographed them both as part of Feeding Tube Awareness Week. “Danna shares their struggles openly in an attempt to make the world a more accepting place for her daughter,” the photographer says. “Her biggest hope is that people will see past the tubes and medical equipment, see past the external differences, to recognize and appreciate her daughter for who she is.”
We asked Woodward if Nyla Jane’s daily routine was much like those of other kids her age. Unfortunately, there are differences. Nyla Jane has had 34 surgeries and procedures in her short life. She always brings her stuffed chicken “Clucky,” and when she wakes up, her brother Sammy’s name is usually the first word she says. “She sees ten different specialists on a regular basis,” Woodward says.
Despite these challenges, Nyla Jane is a happy, triumphant child, and that spirit is captured in Woodward’s pictures. “I’ll never forget the feeling in their home and the fierce love in their family,” Woodward says. “Feeding tube awareness is important to me because this family is important to me,” she tells us.
We asked the photographer to share a few of her beautiful Nyla Jane moments along with some tips for working with kids.
Get down on the kids’ level. Not only to photograph them, but also to talk to them and earn their trust. This is always my first tip for parents to improve pictures of their kids, and it is essential for photographers.
Be interested in the kids. Put the camera down for a few minutes and get to know them. I earn a child’s trust the same way I earn an adult’s trust: by talking to them. If they tell you something, eat it up. Ask them more questions. Show excitement for what they have to say. Sneakily take pictures between conversation. Do they want to show you how fast their favorite car can go? Watch and cheer! Be their biggest fan, and they will start to trust you. In fact, they might never want you to leave. Then you’ll be able to capture their real personality.
Let them see the pictures. Kids love to see themselves in the camera. If I have a child who does not want to be photographed, usually I can win them over by showing them the pictures on the back of the camera, or I even let them take a picture with my help. Be really excited about it, and make it seem like the coolest thing in the world. Help them feel like a special helper. Show them that you respect them.
Play games. Ask silly questions. I can almost always get a child to laugh by asking, “How old are you? 25? What?! You’re only 5? I thought for sure you were 25.” Or, “What color are your eyes? Purple, right? Oh, no? They’re red?”
The number one mistake to avoid when working with kids is forcing them into doing things they don’t want to do. Instead, make it fun. Respect them and their concerns. Be patient and observe. Go with the flow. Anticipate moments. If a child is hanging back, holding onto their mom’s legs, then make a picture of that. Make pictures that reflect the child’s personality. In my opinion, the very best photos of children are the candid ones that illustrate a relationship, a habit, or a personality trait. The ones that the parents will look at and say, “that captures them perfectly!!” The best thing about kids is their inhibition and lack of self-awareness. They are the easiest subjects to capture real, candid pictures of.
We started off this story with some of Woodward’s best Nyla Jane anecdotes, and we’ll end it with one of her wishes. Nyla Jane’s future is still uncertain, and she will probably remain on the feeding tube for a while. But when Danna looks at the pictures Woodward made, she sees her daughter’s courage – the same courage that made her want to climb that fence. She thinks about how the images will follow Nyla Jane as she moves through her life. “She hopes they will be a reminder to her that she is brave and strong and her feeding tube does not define her,” the photographer says.