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News / Life / Clark County Life

Local photographer helps kids live out dreams

Superhero Tammy Fraley connects with children on austism spectrum for portraits

By Sue Vorenberg for The Columbian
Published: July 1, 2018, 6:02am
8 Photos
Tammy Fraley of Fraley Photography, left, shares a smile with Schuyler Smith of Vancouver as he is dressed as Obi-Wan Kenobi on Wednesday afternoon in downtown Vancouver. Fraley had previously taken Smith’s portrait and the two reunited to have their photo taken together.
Tammy Fraley of Fraley Photography, left, shares a smile with Schuyler Smith of Vancouver as he is dressed as Obi-Wan Kenobi on Wednesday afternoon in downtown Vancouver. Fraley had previously taken Smith’s portrait and the two reunited to have their photo taken together. Amanda Cowan/The Columbian Photo Gallery

It would be a vast understatement to say that Schuyler Smith, 19, loves Star Wars.

The energetic teen, is on the autism spectrum, has his own lightsaber, can identify any of the films with just one quote, and can tell you, in some detail, why Luke Skywalker is the best Jedi ever.

Getting the young space adventurer to pose or sit still for a photo, however, had long been a losing proposition. That is until Schuyler’s mom, Leslie Smith, took him to a photo shoot with Tammy Fraley, owner of Fraley Photography — a specialist in photographing kids with disabilities.

“It can be a nightmare experience for a special needs family to go to a photographer and be told they all have to do things a certain way or pose a certain way,” Leslie Smith said. “I’ve had friends go to Walmart for photos and tell me their child just screamed. Often families like ours just don’t get pictures because of that.”

Children on the autism spectrum and those with disabilities often have problems sitting still and posing alone or with family members. And it takes a significant amount of patience and skill to capture a genuine smile in a picturesque setting.

But Fraley has a secret: She’s had tons of practice with her own son, Justin, 25, who has Asperger’s syndrome.

The trick, she said, is to figure out what the child is passionate about, and then try to find a way to photograph them in a setting they enjoy without using poses, just simple directions.

“It’s actually pretty easy for kids with special needs if they’re not posing and sitting in place,” Fraley said. “I tell them to look — see if they can see a fairy or something else in the distance. Even if they’re nonverbal, they can follow that direction and the pictures turn out beautiful.”

In Schuyler’s case, the key factor was to hone in on his love of all things Star Wars.

For his fall photo shoot with her, which included school pictures, Fraley brought him outside to a leafy field with his lightsaber in hand, and asked if he could fight off some Sith invaders.

The results were great, his mom said. She got both a picture of her son posing with his lightsaber and one of him standing with a genuine smile on his face that she’s sent to just about every relative she could think of.

“I know Tammy’s secret,” Leslie Smith said. “She knows each child with special needs has another internal language, and she sees it as a treasure to find and brings it out quickly. This is really such a service to preserve moments that families with kids like this often miss out on.”

Schuyler said he also had fun at the shoot and he absolutely loves the results.

“They’re great,” he said, giving a thumbs up while pacing around the studio. “My favorite photo, my hands are crossed, my teeth are showing when I smile.”

Fraley, who grew up in Clark County and graduated from Evergreen High School, has always been fascinated by photography. She spent some time at Clark College studying the trade, but ran out of money to pay for school. She then ended up meeting her husband in 1990 and starting a family in 1992 when Justin Fraley was born.

“After that the whole photography business idea took a back seat to raising my son,” Fraley said. “Raising a son with a disability, there was a lot of battling with schools to get him the services he needed. It was a nightmare for a long time.”

Various programs helped sporadically from kindergarten to fifth grade or so, but the middle school programs didn’t translate very well and he had to go to a special school for kids with behavioral problems to graduate from high school. It was a rough ride, but Justin Fraley is now doing very well, she said.

“He’s living on his own now, and he’s planning on going to Clark College,” she said.

Through most of Justin Fraley’s school years, his mother’s photography took a back seat. But as he started reaching adulthood, she got interested again and found the work of a Canadian photographer who had a portrait success system with fairy costumes and videos. She decided to buy into the system and start a new portrait business.

“I actually started during the recession, in 2008,” Fraley said. “I still feel like I’m still there sometimes. I worked out of my home until the first of this year, when I moved to the Academy building.”

Her business now shares a studio with another photographer at the Academy, 400 E. Evergreen Blvd., Suite 316.

Fraley also joined the group Amazing Moms as a parent when she was raising Justin Fraley. And when she started using fairy costumes and specializing in kids with disabilities, the organization also turned into her first natural client base.

“Amazing Moms, they’re kids with special needs, mostly on the spectrum,” Fraley said, adding that she’s also worked with a handful of other groups for kids with special needs in recent years.

Fraley also recently added superhero portraits to her list of offerings for special needs kids — and she just launched another program to provide free sessions to special needs families who can’t afford it.

“The superhero thing is kind of a work in progress,” she said. “I have a lot of backdrops, ponds and rocks and things for the fairies. For the superheroes I have a cityscape, but I’d like to find a few more.”

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She typically buys the costumes at Costco or other stores in the fall, when the Halloween costumes come out, she said.

Schuyler said he’s going to stick with Star Wars for his portraits. But he does love a few superheroes, too. His favorites right now are Black Widow from the Marvel universe and Wonder Woman from the DC universe, he said.

“She has an invisible jet, she can fly on her own, she has a ring and the lasso,” Schuyler said of Wonder Woman. “And she’s also pretty.”

Leslie Smith said she’s just thrilled to see her son so excited about pictures of himself. It’s fantastic to see his eyes light up in a friendly setting, rather than seeing him struggle with poses and directions that make him unhappy.

“The special needs community in Vancouver is the size of the population of Longview,” Leslie Smith said. “Having services like really good photographers, people to cut their hair, that’s like gold for us. It can be frustrating to find services. We’re willing to pay, we just want someone who gets our children and understands them, like Tammy.”