Florida photographer Kristina Bewley wanted to capture her enchanted young daughter growing up, dancing in princess dresses and visiting the ultimate playground, Disney World.
She and her husband took 4-year-old Giselle, who has Down syndrome, to the theme park for the first time last September. They have returned every month since, with Giselle dressed in different costumes, usually sewn by her mother.
“It’s become kind of an addiction. Since we live so close, we base our visits off one or two outfits,” said Bewley, who lives less than three hours away in Jacksonville, Florida.
Lately, Giselle’s favorites have been Jessie, the cowgirl from "Toy Story," and Fawn, Tinkerbell's pixie pal who speaks with animals. The costumes have become a recurring theme in a personal project Bewley chronicles on the Facebook page Giselle’s Garden.
Bewley said she’s been surprised by the reaction she has received to her photographs.
“I’m not trying to be biased, but I think my daughter is beautiful. I think she’s as beautiful as any other 4-year-old. I just want her to be treated the same way. She could be a model in her photos,” she said.
“I just want people to look at the photos and think, ‘Wow, that little girl is like every other little girl, having fun twirling in a princess dress.’ But at the same time, I’m not naïve,” she said.
“I don't want people to be color blind or disability blind. You just need to see it and accept it. Just accept that she has Down syndrome, just like she has brown eyes or dark blond hair. It’s a part of who she is, but it’s not her whole makeup. It’s not all there is to her.”
Bewley, 28, said she first started making outfits for her daughter when Giselle began playing dress up.
“When she was younger, she didn’t like tulle and things that were itchy. She had texture issues, so I taught myself to sew so she could have princess dresses,” she said.
Bewley has made all but a few of the costumes her daughter wears, which have included Cinderella, Princess Jasmine from "Aladdin," and various Pixar characters, such as Mike Wazowski from “Monsters, Inc.” and the little boy from “Up.”
A typical trip to Disney World for Giselle doesn’t include visits to the usual attractions. Instead, the family takes a ride on the carousel, hunts for the ducks, watches the parades and, of course, visits with one or two Disney characters.
Bewley said that with every trip to the amusement park, the mainly non-verbal Giselle has increasingly become more outgoing and confident. She now waves to people from her stroller, often giving them a “hi.” She even offered a high-five for the first time to a stranger: An actor dressed like an army man from "Toy Story."
“She just blossomed. I don’t have any other words to describe it — she is a flower and she just burst into blooming when we got there,” Bewley said. "It was insane. And now we’re obsessed with going because that’s when we get to see her at her best.”
The visits also have helped elevate Bewley’s craft as a photographer. She said they have helped improve her photo-editing skills and boosted her creativity and ability to work in an environment filled with numerous challenges.
“Disney is a very crowded place, so to get these photos that look like it’s just Giselle in this element is really difficult,” she said. “Also, she does have Down syndrome, so she doesn’t take direction. I can’t tell her to stand somewhere and she’ll do it. It’s not going to happen.”
Working with Giselle also has been a bonus for Bewley when it comes to understanding the needs of families who have children with disabilities.
"I love that I can offer sessions to families with special needs who may be afraid to take their kids to a photographer who wouldn't be used to working with children like that," she said.
Mainly, however, Bewley is just grateful for the opportunities to capture her daughter being happy.
"This has been a very fun learning experience for us. She’s definitely taught us to slow down and savor every moment, and really look into finding the beauty in things," she said.
“I’m just trying to make sure I capture her doing all this stuff when she’s young, and we don’t have too many worries going on and we're all just having a good time. There’s really not any philosophical reason, other than I thought it would all be pretty.”
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