Thomas Balsamo: Enriching Lives Through Portraiture
Portrait photographers are responsible for a lot of happiness among a wide variety of people, because well-done family pictures grow more valuable yearly. They usually portray infants, seniors, friends, and relatives, though sometimes portraits are interpretations of unusual subjects. Thomas Balsamo knows this because he has 30 years of experience photographing families and children. His work has also led him to a personal project that originated when his good will and curiosity were extended toward individuals or groups who found their portrait sittings emotionally and psychologically unusual, as well as uplifting.
Balsamo’s studio in Barrington, Illinois, has pleased countless clients. At age 12 he had a darkroom and at 18 he opened his first studio. Since then he says, “I have always tried to capture the true personality of my subjects, so their images would help enrich their lives.” His personal project was a challenge.
A few years ago Balsamo and writer Sharon Rosenbloom created a beautiful and inspiring book of photographs titled Souls: Beneath and Beyond Autism (McGraw-Hill, 2004, and still in print). In their handsomely designed softcover publication is a pageant of black-and-white portraits of children with autism, alone, or together with parents or siblings, and sometimes with each other. The photographs range from joyful to pensive, and the book celebrates its subjects’ lives in beautiful pictures and empathetic words.
Balsamo explains how this project came about: “Many years ago I photographed a family with their two children, and when they returned to the studio for a second session they brought their third child who I had never met, a teenager who was clearly challenged by a disability. They explained he was with them only temporarily.
“When I was ready to start shooting I invited them all into my camera room and made eye contact with the autistic youngster. Then the parents made it clear to me their son would not be included in the family portrait. I still find that situation disturbing, that a young boy would be left in my waiting room while his family enjoyed a portrait session. Since then I’ve had years of working with many special people, and I’m still sorry for those parents who did not want their son included because of his disability. They allowed his autism to omit him from an occasion that could have enriched all their lives.”
Reflecting on this and similar experiences led Balsamo to an epiphany where he made a decision to create a book project that would be a gift to the extended world of parents and children with autism. The book would have a poignant message in the faces and expressions of youngsters and parents dealing with a difficult issue. He observes, “I wanted to create photographs that revealed a glimpse into souls like that of the boy who was left out of his family portrait. I hoped this project would help the public see special individuals from a different view.” He was in search of this goal when Rosenbloom arrived at his studio and asked him to photograph her children, Joey and Raia.
Balsamo says, “Sharon told me Joey is dealing with autism. I was impressed with her, and soon discovered her passion and knowledge for understanding and helping families dealing with autism. I realized she could help create the message I anticipated for my book. Her arrival and empathy about the disability at that moment was serendipity. She had studied writing in college and I gave her my plan for the book, and before long I began creating portraits of autistic children, and Sharon began interviewing their parents.”
Balsamo found he had to take his time and build trust with these special kids. He says that being calm and patient were the keys to his approach, adding, “Autism is a spectrum disorder so some subjects were very low functioning and nonverbal, while others were savants who excelled in various talents and were going to contribute to our society.
“With understanding, I had a relatively good percentage of connecting with my autistic subjects. Sometimes I captured moments when they were darting around, though I also scored well getting the myriad expressions in their active and passive, pensive and smiling faces, alone and with family members. I learned what words and gestures made them comfortable so I could show true representations of personality through their eyes and relationships. I was alert for expressions and reactions that showed their individuality. After each shoot, I reached out for a hug and if I got one back, it made my day.”
Souls: Beneath and Beyond Autism took Balsamo and Rosenbloom three years to complete. When subjects were scarce, Balsamo created a 4x6 promo card with a few images and their mission statement, and handed it to clients. It was effective: “The floodgates opened with support and more people wanting to be included in the book.”
When parents were hesitant to publicly label their children as having autism, Balsamo showed them portraits he had taken, and both he and Rosenbloom explained their positive intentions to illustrate the full potentials of afflicted children. In the introduction to Souls, they say, “This book hopes to educate and inspire by breaking apart stereotypes associated with autism, while showing vividly that love is omnipotent in our trials and triumphs…The story is written from…countless intimate exchanges with families…in the autistic world.”
Balsamo feels, “The project took on a life of its own, and inspired us as we went along. Included in my objective was to capture a glimpse of the souls of a group with a common issue, and the effort has been rewarding. Inspirational moments during sessions, and connecting with these remarkable children, has brought much personal satisfaction. I also feel fortunate to be contributing very special images to the national autism awareness campaign that is ongoing.”
For several years he has collaborated with Toys “R” Us and Babies “R” Us on the national “Faces of Autism” campaign. Over six million dollars has been raised since 2007.
For additional information and to see more of his portraits, visit Thomas Balsamo’s website at: www.portraitsbythomas.com.
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