Pam Loudon is one of those people you instantly like.
She is funny, friendly and has an infectious laugh.
But she will be the first to admit that the laid-back, witty exterior you see — while truly reflective of who she is — is best used as a coping mechanism.
As the parent of a child with special needs, Loudon knows it’s easy to sink into sadness and self-pity if she can’t laugh at some things.
“It can be a very isolating life raising a child with special needs,” she said. “You’re constantly balancing stress, time, and energy to do or not do something. I hate to say this, but it’s often so much easier to stay at home. And that increases the feeling of being alone.”
Loudon’s 19-year-old daughter PJ lives with severe physical and mental disabilities that affect her ability to communicate and move about independently. According to Loudon, caring for PJ is like caring for a 100-pound infant.
“PJ doesn’t fit into a neat little category,” she explained. “Like most children, she loves. She smiles. She cries. She laughs. But someone always has to be with her, feeding her, changing her diaper, moving her and speaking for her.”
And then, like a switch, Loudon’s sense of humor kicks in.
“Now if you’re looking for a category for me, I generally accept supermodel. Because mom/caregiver/girlfriend/translator/cook/maid/seammaker/lawyer doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue.”
It’s this ability to find the bright side of things – something PJ says PJ taught her – that gets her through the toughest of times. But as difficult as raising PJ can be, Loudon admits there are those rare instances when no work is required at all.
“Every once in a while you get those moments of pure joy,” she says. “Like when PJ laughs, there’s no stopping him. I know it’s hard for most people to understand because a lot of what they see looks harsh. But when you get those insights – oh, it’s amazing.”
On a sunny Saturday morning in March, Pam and PJ had one of those moments.
A focused plan
A little over two years ago, the Medical University of South Carolina opened the Delta Dental of South Carolina accessible treatment area of the James B. Edwards College of Dental Medicine. Although it was a bite, the establishment has brought many smiles over that time.
Michelle Ziegler, Physician of Dentistry, directs the Pamela Kaminski Center for Adults and Adolescents with Special Health Needs at MUSC.
“I wish it wasn’t the case, but because so many general dentists lack the ability to deal with special needs patients, those patients end up with us,” she said. According to Ziegler, MUSC College of Dental Medicine students work with special needs patients as part of their curriculum to get them to practice and become comfortable with this patient population.
“We are healthcare professionals first and this is a group that needs to be seen and welcomed,” she said.
When Ziegler came to MUSC 10 years ago, she had maybe 12 special needs patients. Today, the clinic has more than 400. But even with that significant increase, when you now enter the building — a bright, welcoming space that somehow makes a dental office appealing — you’ll be surrounded by pictures of smiling faces all over the walls. But none of them represent this patient population.
So it was a happy accident when Ziegler crossed paths with a photographer named Rick Guidotti during a dental conference last year. Together, a plan was hatched: Ziegler and her staff would select a handful of ambassadors, as she calls them – patients with a variety of special health needs who embody what the clinic is about – and Rick would photograph them. Then, in October, Guidotti would return with nearly 20 portraits to decorate the clinic’s walls and complement the others already there — again, to better represent the cross-section of MUSC patients.
“We want to show them as people, not as disabilities,” said Ziegler. “This is a demographic that is not only underrepresented in healthcare but also in society. We want to accept them as they are.”
In 1997 Guidotti was a fashion photographer, working in places such as Milan, Paris, London and New York City. He was at the top of his game – his work has appeared in publications such as GQ, People and LIFE magazine – and lived a life most photographers can only dream of. And then he met a teenager at a bus stop, and everything changed.
The girl he met lived with albinism, and as he quickly found out, her life was one of bullying and isolation. Guidotti told the girl’s mother what he did for a living and asked if he could photograph her daughter. The mother’s answer was decided – “No”. Her rationale: Every time something was done about her daughter or her daughter’s condition, it was always exploitative. But Guidotti assured her that he had other plans. He wanted to make a collection of portraits that celebrate her individualism, her beauty. And so he persisted.
“I’m a New Yorker, I don’t take ‘no’ for an answer,” he joked.
Finally the mother gave in. But when the 16-year-old walked into his studio the next day — the exact same studio where Guidotti did a six-hour photoshoot with Cindy Crawford the day before — her shoulders were hunched. She didn’t make eye contact. Everything was a one word answer.
“You could just see that broken person,” he said. “So I told her, ‘You have to see what I see. You are great.'”
He gave her a mirror and told her to look at herself and appreciate her diversity.
“I don’t remember exactly what I said afterwards, but when she looked in the mirror, something inside her changed because she exploded with a smile that lit up New York City,” he said.
And from then on, Guidotti knew he had a higher calling. He left the fashion industry and founded Positive Exposure, a non-profit organization that promotes a more inclusive world through award-winning photography, film, exhibitions, speaking engagements and educational programs.
And so, over the past 25 years, Guidotti has continued to travel the world – this time in search of less traditional beauty with the goal of promoting a more just and compassionate world where individuals and communities at risk of stigma and exclusion are understood , accepted and accepted are celebrated – he calls it the spirit of difference.
“I love creating an opportunity to showcase diversity,” he said. “If we get this right, we can help create a space where these people can be heard, seen and loved.”
The big reveal
On this sunny March morning in Charleston, Guidotti photographed almost 20 ambassadors in the porch just outside the dental clinic throughout the day.
Each time he undertakes a Positive Exposure project, Guidotti makes sure his subjects have a huge support system to keep them as comfortable as possible. Family, friends, neighbors, whatever – he tells them to bring them all.
“When I’m taking their photos and they have these big smiles on their faces, I usually take a moment to look past them to their moms or dads or their friends and almost every time these people just kind of shine even brighter.” he said.
Loudon still can’t believe PJ was one of the ambassadors chosen for the project.
“When opportunities like this come up to take advantage of, that’s tremendous,” she said, adding with a laugh, “I still think they picked us because we’re always on time for our appointments.”
Loudon said one of the best parts of the experience was watching other kids, like PJ, interact. “They were so full of energy,” she said. “When such children are together, it is a joy to see how they behave. They’re sweet, open and honest, and you’re just blown away.”
Later this year, Guidotti will return to the downtown MUSC campus and present the framed portraits to the College of Dental Medicine in the form of an art opening. All ambassadors are commemorated in framed 20 x 24 inch portraits.
“So often when kids like PJ are seen or recognized, it’s a stare-type situation,” Loudon said. “She doesn’t conform to the norms of what’s attractive. Children like her are rarely portrayed in pictures.”
Ziegler said she plans to hang the framed photos in the main lobby just outside the clinic’s entrance for everyone to see.
Loudon gets emotional just thinking about it. “The fact that Dr. Ziegler wanting all of her patients to be represented speaks volumes I think because God knows what they do on a daily basis – it’s a matter of the heart.”