Julie Willson, a photographer based out of New Jersey, has put together a series of photographs to celebrate and appreciate children with Down Syndrome.
One image shows a sweet little girl with blonde hair and a big smile. She wears a fluffy white gown that makes her look like a fairy tale princess come to life, and she sits on a chair that’s twice her size like a makeshift throne.
Another photo shows a toddler posing in the same chair. He wears suspenders and a tiny blue bow tie, and the charm of the image is in no way diminished by the breathing tube going into his nose.
According to Willson, she was inspired to take these photographs after the loss of her sister, Dina, who was also born with Down Syndrome. Though doctors warned that Dina wouldn’t live past the age of five, she made it all the way to adulthood thanks to the unwavering love and support of her relatives.
“She was the best thing that could have happened to our family,” said Willson, describing her sister as sweet, stubborn and unconditionally giving. She loved to cook and share her meals with others. She was a big fan of Celina Dion and even met her during one of the singer’s concert.
Dina passed away four years ago from heart failure, a common fate for those with Down Syndrome. But Willson still finds meaning in her death by bringing attention to the cause. She’s especially interested in banishing stereotypes that Down Syndrome is something ugly or shameful.
According to a blog post that she wrote during Down Syndrome Awareness Month, the doctor that delivered Dina had some very harsh words for her parents when it became clear that Dina wasn’t picture-perfect.
“He walked in the room with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth,” she shared, “sat on my mom’s bed and said, ‘your daughter is a mongoloid.'”
Despite his harshness, however, Willson’s parents decided to love Dina just like any other child. They also decided to ignore all of the doom-laden prophecies and turn their faith over to God. This created the blueprint that led a happy life for both Dina and her sister.
“God had much greater plans for Dina [than death],” Willson wrote. “He used her for 35 years to bring joy to our family, to our friends and to strangers who she met along the way.”
Willson’s photo shoot was the culmination of hard work, social media recruiting and even donations from local clothing shops. When asked why she decided to take pictures of children with Down Syndrome, Willson replied that she wanted to reach out to parents, aunts, uncles, siblings and even children who knew someone with the condition. She wanted them to forget stereotypes and look at people with Down Syndrome as people.
She also wanted to reassure expectant parents who had just received the news that their babies would have the condition.
“Although you will have your ups and downs as you raise your child with Down syndrome,” she wrote, “your heart will love that child thousands times more then you could ever imagine and you and your entire family will be blessed eternally.”
One of her photographs shows a bald little boy with baggy jeans and bare feet. He has startlingly blue eyes, and his laugh is almost too big for his face. He looks like he’s having the time of his life during the photo shoot.
“My sister Dina is most definitely looking down from Heaven giggling away and so happy,” said Willson.
The full photo shoot can be viewed on Facebook.