Local photographer Hilary Hilary Gauld-Camilleri views photography as a powerful tool, one that can be used to educate and inform people about issues in their community.
“A lot can be said through a photo and looking into someone's eyes, listening to their stories,” she said.
Gauld-Camilleri has been capturing the stories and personalities of her subjects for 13 years. For the last seven years, she has been battling misconceptions surrounding those with Down Syndrome through a yearly photography campaign with the Waterloo-Wellington Down Syndrome Society (WWDSS).
She initially became involved with the organization through her friend Kate, who gave birth to a son with Down Syndrome seven years ago.
“She became a member of the Waterloo-Wellington Down syndrome society. They had always put out a yearly calendar with their members, and they were looking for a photographer to take over the project,” she said.
When Kate approached her with the opportunity, she happily accepted.
“I just felt that [myself and] we as a community probably had some opportunity to learn from this group of people and I thought it would be a great opportunity to use the skills I had and put that together with this amazing group of people.”
It started as a yearly calendar for members of the WWSDD, but quickly evolved into an advocacy campaign.
“I think what we discovered after the first year of doing this project was that there was a real opportunity to use this as a vehicle for advocacy in our community, to continue to educate and let our communities know about adults and children with Down syndrome, and their capabilities and the things that they bring to our community,” she said.
The campaign is different each year. Typically, they take existing stereotypes in the community and tackle them through photography and the stories of the children and adults involved.
“There are still lots of misconceptions around what people with Down syndrome can and can't do. And I think that it's really important for people to understand all the things that they can do,” she said. “Often times, where misconceptions come from is our lack of understanding. And so I think that the more we learn, the more we listen to what these children and adults have to say about their lives; I think it really humanizes them and allows us to see them in a different way.”
This year, the project is titled Believe With Me, and highlights the short-term goals and dreams of the photography subjects.
“Believe With Me is all about these adults and children with Down syndrome and their goals. We really wanted to focus on the things that they are working toward in the near future, whether it's learning to kayak or bake a cake, or wanting to travel or getting a job,” she said.
“I think we really wanted to focus on some of the short-term things that these people are working on... it's something that we can all relate to. Through the pandemic, we have all kind of taken a look at the things we want to do in our lives,” she said. “I think that with the uncertainty in the last couple of years, bigger goals just sometimes feel a little overwhelming, and taking on smaller goals in life has become really important.”
That is especially true for those with Down Syndrome, as she says many of them have been home from school, and have not been able to work their regular jobs because they are in a high-risk, more vulnerable group.
“So a lot of them have turned to some hobbies and interests and things like that, and set their own goals to work on, to get through the pandemic.”
"I love seeing on social media all the pictures Hilary takes of me and my friends," said 18-year-old Chloe Murphy. "I also like when people say they saw me in the calendar at their school."
The campaign is also a call to action, inviting people to learn about the goals of those in their community, and thinking about what can be done to help support them.
She says campaigns like this “keep us aware, keep us learning, and can push our thoughts and perceptions on people in the world and things that are different from us.”
One of her favourite things about this project is that she’s been able to meet with the same subjects for the last seven years, “truly watching them grow up before my eyes and change.”
“I love seeing how the community responds,” she said. “And now the community receives this project every year, it's something they've started to look forward to. And I think that it has made a real difference in shifting some perceptions and paving the way for some of these adults in our community.”
Down Syndrome Awareness Week starts Oct. 24. To learn more, visit the the Canadian Down Syndrome Society's website.