moms

Daughter with Down syndrome bonds with mom through photos

Jan. 2, 2014 at 1:23 PM ET

The mother-daughter photo project captures simple moments, like the pair doing each other's hair (here in 2011).
Emer Gillespie/Laoisha Gillespie-Prendergast
The mother-daughter photo project captures simple moments, like the pair doing each other's hair (here in 2011).

A photographer, so used to being an observer, is not often found on the other side of the lens. But one mother gave up control of her images for a project that allowed her to bond with her child in a unique way.

In 2008, Emer Gillespie, an Irish artist/photographer based in Brighton, England, started taking photographs for her "Picture You, Picture Me" series, which features her and her daughter Laoisha. Mother and daughter are side-by-side in similar scenes, with Emer taking Laoisha's photo and then Laoisha taking her mother's. Sometimes the photos feature Emer and Laoisha together, each taking turns performing a task, such as braiding each other's hair.

Emer and Laoisha take turns capturing each other's photos.
Laoisha Gillespie/Emer Gillespie-Prendergast
Emer and Laoisha take turns capturing each other's photos. This one's called Kite Flying, 2009.

Emer said that the photo series emerged from another project called "Two Homes," which documented Laoisha's two-family home life (her parents are in an "alternative domestic partnership").

“For me, the real and the personal is one of the strongest forms of photography, so I was already making very personal work allowing viewers an insight into my family life,” Emer told TODAY.com. “As Laoisha was the main subject in this project, and was photographed all the time, she began to request that she took a photo before I took a photo. In my sketchbook, all these double portraits started to appear, and I was fascinated by the photographer/subject role reversal.”

Emer said 11-year-old Laoisha, who has Down syndrome, has learned to express herself.
Laoisha Gillespie-Prendergast/Emer Gillespie
Emer said 11-year-old Laoisha, who has Down syndrome, has learned to express herself.

As the project progressed, Emer said that that 11-year-old Laoisha, who has Down syndrome, has benefited from the project, learning how to express herself and become more independent.

“Laoisha’s verbal and visual language, especially at the beginning, were quite limited, and so this was an invaluable way of spending time one on one, and allowing her to choose positions, facial expressions and activities. She really thrives in learning new things, taking control and then seeing the prints.” For example, Laoisha often suggests ideas for the photos, such as the one featuring the two jumping on beds or styling each other's hair.

"As soon as she expresses her wish to not take part in the project, it will end," said Emer of Laoisha's interest.
Laoisha Gillespie-Prendergast/Emer Gillespie
"As soon as she expresses her wish to not take part in the project, it will end," said Emer of Laoisha's interest.

While the photo series has received critical acclaim, including being named to Critical Mass’ Top 50 portfolio of 2013, and has been exhibited in New York, London and Portugal, Emer said that she wants to continue the project only as long as Laoisha is interested. “As soon as she expresses her wish to not take part in the project, it will end,” she said. Emer added that she would like to make a book of the photos for her daughter’s 18th birthday, noting that “if the project continues to then, I would be delighted.”

This photo of Laoisha and Emer is called Red Shoes, 2008.
Emer Gillespie/Laoisha Gillespie-Prendergast
This photo of Laoisha and Emer is called Red Shoes, 2008.

For parents who would like to try a similar photo project with their children, Emer suggests not focusing on the pictures, but the experience itself.

On her website, Emer says Laoisha "has taken more and more control of the camera and of me."
Emer Gillespie/Laoisha Gillespie-Prendergast
On her website, Emer says Laoisha "has taken more and more control of the camera and of me."

“I think the most important thing is to enjoy the session, without worrying too much about what the images will turn out like. Some of the images Laoisha has taken have been out of focus, but that’s (OK).

“The more they feel like they are making the decisions and influencing the images, the more they will enjoy it.”

Emer Gillespie
Emer Gillespie and her daughter, Laoisha, take turns capturing each other with the camera.
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