Episode 91: Don Orkoskey
By Cameron Suorsa
January 24, 2022
0:00 / 26:10
Mothers of Misfits00:01

Welcome to the Mothers of Misfits podcast. Join me for conversations about how to advocate for our kids in a one size fits all world. Be sure to subscribe, so you never miss an episode!

Emily Melious00:17

Welcome back everyone to another episode of Mothers of Misfits. I love that this podcast introduces me to some of the most incredible people, some that are around the world and in this case, Don is right in my backyard. Just about he's a fellow Pittsburgher. So let me tell you a little bit more about Don before we jump in. Don Orkoskey is the owner of WDO Photography.

He is a photographer of course, a business artist, teacher, and advocate. He's also neurodivergent, and we're going to talk about that, and his work as a portrait and event photographer centers on his client's mental and emotional needs. I just love your perspective on family moments. Don, thanks for coming on.

Don Orkoskey01:02

Well, thank you so much for having me. I'm really happy to be here. And I'm so glad that, um, you're doing what you're doing because having a resource like this is incredible. Um, I think I said, when I reached out to you, I wish that my, my mom had such a resource. Um, uh, I was, uh, diagnosed with ADHD late in life, actually just this fall. And um, of course, when I told my mom that she was, she felt that guilt, you know, that mom guilt.

Emily Melious01:31

Oh, yeah. Oh man. Oh man. Yeah. Well, moms will find a way to be guilty about something, but yeah,

that´s a very serious moment for the, both of you.

Don Orkoskey01:41

Yeah. Yeah. She said, oh, I, you know, I guess I screwed up. I didn't catch that. And I'm like, you know what? I´m 43 So I remember younger cousins, I remember siblings, a younger siblings of friends being diagnosed, but no one in my class right, was diagnosed. No one, my age was diagnosed when I was, when I was a kid so, um, so I think, you know, I told her not to blame herself for, for that. So.

Emily Melious02:09

Well, we're in a different era and you're a great reminder of the progress that we've made as a society that we're much more aware of neurodivergence, we're much more accepting of that. We have more resources for that, schooling. We really, I know sometimes on this podcast, we focus on the bits that we still have yet to go, but we've really come so far and that's certainly something to be celebrated.

And I'm really glad you shared that because everything you're about to tell us about the experience of getting your pictures taken, which is pretty universal. I think just about every family out there probably has had one, if not more, uh, professional photography sessions. Um, and I shared with you before we started recording, that I remember on many occasions where I have had to change my clothes, do a complete wardrobe change because I had sweat through them because it was like herding cats. You know, some kid was crying and, um, you know, it's, I guess it's just so indicative of what we all say about how, you know, what we put on social media is this pretty smiling picture of a family.

And then the 45 minutes up to that one moment is chaos. I feel it I've been there. We've all had those experiences of the family photo sessions, just being almost like comedy. So I love that you're doing.

Don Orkoskey03:32

Or combat.

Emily Melious03:32

Yes, or like combat, I like that too. So I love that you're coming on and talking to us, not only about how to just make, uh, photography, a pleasant experience for everybody, but then that extra layer that you have firsthand understanding of is for neurodivergent family members as well. So, you know, this is already challenging and then that's a whole other level of challenge.

But before we get into your advice for us about how to make that a better experience,

Challenges photographers face photographing special needs

what are some of the challenges that you think neuro-typical photographers may miss? Just not even being aware of.

Don Orkoskey04:09

That's a, that's a really good question. I think it really depends on the level of experience they have. There's a lot of resources out there for photographers, uh, when it comes to working with kids with all sorts of special needs, for mobility issues to neurodivergence and, um, I think matters how much they take advantage of that.

How much they're aware of those things. Um, and I think most, most parents, of neurodivergent kids normally do a pretty good job of, of, you know, letting people know in advance. That's, you know, that's, that's, again, that's one of those anxiety points, right? As a parent, right. That you have, um, I need to tell, I need to tell this person about this expectation, right? And that's, you know,, a great thing. That's, that's important.

Emily Melious04:55

Okay. So first tip I'm picking up is communicate with your photographer in asume they're going to know the idiosyncrasies or needs of your family, no matter who you are and what your needs And I'm thinking that this is maybe like a five, 10 minute conversation in advance, but just, Hey! Heads up, here's what's going to make this experience better for all of us or more challenging all of us.

Don Orkoskey05:18

That is so important. And your right, that's that's the first tip because, um, as a photographer, being prepared... and it's important to talk about you and your family and your experiences and your own limitations. And, uh, because if somebody, again, if they have no experience, right, if, if their experience, with somebody who is on the spectrum is, uh, watching Atypical on Netflix. Right. You know, they ha they, they come with preconceived notions that are based on popular media. Right? So, um, I'm going to do with a quirky kid or whatever it is. Right.

So, um, But they don't have any real life experience working with somebody who's on the spectrum, working with somebody who has down syndrome or something like that, then they there, even if they do right, the, the people present so vastly differently, um, regardless of their diagnosis, right. So we're people first, right.

Emily Melious06:19

Yes. Yes. We're all misfits in our own beautiful, messy, perfect way. And, and, you know, no, no two people are alike, and that's the theme of the podcast is there is no fit in. And even amongst the neurodivergent community, we can't create these stereotypes and make these assumptions. So that's really simple. Yeah.

And you had actually mentioned again before we hit the record. That, it's much less intimidating for parents to advocate for their kids, with a photographer, for example, with a medical. that was, I wouldn't have thought about that until you said it, but so true. I mean, this is also just good practice.

Because the stakes are lower. You know, this is easy for us to say, okay, gonna I'm gonna bravery And have this conversation with somebody that feels a lot easier to talk to, then when the stakes are a lot higher or I some might some more pushback.

Don Orkoskey07:20

Right. the thing is, uh, as much as I love being a photographer, there are a million other photographers out there. So if somebody is not a good fit, if somebody is not listening, if they, if they're not respecting you, can say, you know what, I'm going find another photographer. So it is good practice.

Emily Melious07:39

Yeah. Good point. Okay.

Routine to help special needs families and parents deal with a photo session

So let's get into the heart of it. You've developed a process over the last 20 years, to help families and parents and kids to, you know, deal often emotionally difficult routine interrupting, uh, experience being photographed. So can you talk us through that?

Don Orkoskey08:00

Yeah. Uh, like you, like

it starts with communication. So, um, there's, there are a lot of different types of family photographers out there. When I was a kid, we went to Sears, right.

Emily Melious08:12

Yeah! Hills? I think it was even Hills

Don Orkoskey08:15

. Yeah, Yeah.

Emily Melious08:16

Yes, woah! Flash, flashback. those hideous backdrops that weren't fooling anybody. That wasn't really back there.

Don Orkoskey08:26

The bookshelf, the fake real bookshelf, this isn't just the background.

Emily Melious08:31

Yes. Oh, wow. I'm really glad we're past that now, except for school photos, but that's story for another day. Yes. That was our experience when we were kids.

Don Orkoskey08:41

Yeah. And the kids today don't know what it's like to, to, you know, ask for the laser background and have mom say no. Right? Cause it costs more. So, um, but you know, we went to, we went to Sears, we went to, uh, you know, when my mom was making good money, we went to Olan Mills. Right. So, but it's, it's, uh, you have 15 minutes and you get in there.

It doesn't matter who's throwing a fit. It doesn't matter, if mom's, makeup's not right, you know, if dad's hair is sticking up, like you just get in there and you and you do your thing. Um, they are are posing you just like everybody else. Um and that's again if you know if that's what you're if that's what you're after and your family's capable of doing that then you, know no shame right.

Um but for me uh, it's regardless of who I'm photographing. I want their photos to reflect who they are, their personality, how they see themselves. Um, and that extends to the family, right? How, how the individual family members see themselves, how want to be presented to the Right. Um, that's number one for me.

Number two is, uh, and this is a big thing for me is, I'm there to take pictures, but I'm not there to traumatize anybody.

Emily Melious10:01

Yeah! I, which you chuckled a minute, but I think for some people, this actually can be traumatizing. So that´s a great, yeah! to bring that up, it can make them not ever want to go through that experience again. So can you really, really kind of hit that home on that point, because want to over it.

Don Orkoskey10:25

Oh, absolutely. I, um, in fact, I had a, another photographer who I know who, who posted a question about, um, the senior. She said, I'm taking this, I've taken the seniors pictures four times. And she's absolutely beautiful. She could be a model, but she has body, uh, body image issues. And she said, what can I do?

And I said, stop taking her picture. It doesn't matter how beautiful you think she is. It doesn't matter how beautiful mom thinks she is. She, she doesn't need to be in her yearbook. Right? Like how many times do you pull your high school yearbook off the shelf and look at yours and look at your picture.

Even if you, even if you would go back and read the comments from other people, Yeah. It's nice for them to be able to see your picture, but if it's something that that much trauma and stress anxiety, you don't need that. that's, for me, understanding and expressing who these, who these folks are, working, with you as a, as a client and helping understand that and making sure that I understand that is, is number one.

But number two is says, no, I don't want my picture taken. Not today. don't, you know, if that's a, a four year old, right. going to force them to do It, a, it's a 17 year old, I'm not going to force them to do it right to me. That's, you know, we can try again if, uh, you know, when, when they're in a better place, um, if they want to, but, um, It's I think body autonomy and mental autonomy is so important.

Uh, being able to say, no, I don't want this. Uh, and, and not being forced into it is, is critical to me. So, um, and they should, they should have, uh, you know, I don't want any child to walk past the family portrait up on the wall. And be triggered by that. Right? Because that was a horrible experience for them.

And you don't want that as a parent. So, um, so that's something that I, I like to explain too. Like if, if we're, if we're not doing it, if we, if we can't get it done, if, if, if somebody says no, then, then that's it. No is no. Right. And we stop there. So, um, now, obviously there's, there's folks that have, um, different time constraints or that, that in the middle of being photographed, um, can get kind of tired of it.

But we, again, we can do a second session. We can do a third session, um, and that I make, I make clear from the get-go and that's something that, um, when looking for a photographer, um, is a good question to ask what's the cancellation policy, right? If we need to reschedule, um, is there additional fees for rescheduling There's largely you can break a portrait photographers down into, into two groups. Those that are, that are doing sort of volume. Right, which tend to be more, um, uh cost-effective right um, but there, again, their job is it's the, it's the, the Hills Sears model. Right? Get you in and get, get the photos.

They have 10 poses. They're going to they're, you know, they're um, Top 10 that sell the best. And so they're going to put you in those poses and they're going to show them to you. And probably going to love them, right? If, if every, if everything went well. Um and then there's you know photographers that like myself, we're, we're a little bit more expensive, but we're also a little customized.

We, you know, we spend our time, um getting to know you and again, if we need reschedule, if we need to, um, uh, I, I travel so. If, if, if you're, if you need to be in a familiar setting, you need to be at home, if you need to be at the local park, um, you know, uh, so that it's not too disruptive, we do that. Right.

And I don't rush into the house, set up a backdrop and start taking pictures. Right. We in, I I, meet the kids. Whatever we need to do to get you the photos for, for your family that, that you will love. Right? And that reflect who you are, and that, um, that again, don't cause trauma, that don't stress because there's, there's, there's already going to be stress and anxiety, right? It is, it is something different. It's something disruptive.

uh, When I arrive, I come in, I meet everybody in the family, you know, we get comfortable right before we take any pictures. I think that's so important. Um, and, and I'm alone in that. There, there are a lot of other photographers that similarly, uh, we'll do, we'll do that. Um, And then again, we're checking in the whole time during the shoot. So how's everybody feeling, you know, are we, are we good? Can we keep going? to me that's really the that's vital because again, I want to make sure that that, uh, everyone's feeling good. They're not sweating through their clothes. Right?

Emily Melious15:38

I know.

Don Orkoskey15:40

So really it's about it's lowering that anxiety beforehand. It's, it's, um, being in a setting that's more comfortable. Um, and then it's constant communication and there's so many kinds of anxiety, whether it not just, not just if this is routine disruption, but, my most recent, um, sort of a rough experience, I would say, um, there was a family that I was doing portraits for and, um, a neuro-typical 13 year old girl.

Um, her older sister, um, is thinner than she is. And she still, I mean, she's thin, but still has like, like some baby cheeks. Right. Cause she's 13. Um, and. I think she has some, some body image issues. Um, and she's also 13. So that's, you know, that's a rough age. Right. And, uh, grandma really wanted photos for, uh, for Christmas and that's all she wanted.

So the pressure is there right?

Emily Melious16:48

Yeah, gotta please grandma.

Don Orkoskey16:50

please grandma, grandma wants this. Do you know, I've got to do this. Uh, her own, her own feelings of, um, uh, her, her body image issues that she was feeling right. Are weighing on her, the social pressure of here's this person that I don't know who's coming in here.

And once she said, I don't like this picture and began to get agitated, you know, then it got even more because now what's is this person is this photographer judging me, right. And I said you know when when these situations happen I said okay we can fix this. Let's, we're going to keep going, as long as you want to keep going, and we're going to create a photo that you like that you feel that you look nice in, Right?

And we did. Um it was it was a more it was a less conventional portrait that we ended up doing. Typically as a photographer you use a longer more telephoto lenses, when when photographing portraits. I put a wide angle lens on which which tends to things that are closer to the camera appear larger. So but you know there's there's angles that you can work with that way, that she actually felt like she looked better in that and was really happy with the end result.

So she had calmed down. But at one point mom had to take her aside and and and talk her through this. But, thinking about all of those pressures right she's got the pressure of the stranger here, right. Who's no matter you know I I'm not judging her but but that's what's in your head right

Emily Melious18:20

Right. She's she's thinking that could be happening. Yeah. Yeah.

Don Orkoskey18:24

Exactly. She's thinking that could be happening, Mom and Dad are upset with me because I'm upset. I can't say no to this because this is for grandma and this is all she wanted for Christmas and she'll be upset, right. And of course those internal pressures of I don't think that I look good, Right? So all of that stuff is just swirling around in a 13 year old girl's head. And I mean that's a lot, but working through that, we came up with a portrait that she really loved.

Emily Melious18:52

I appreciate you walking us through that because I, yeah, I forget what it's like to be a 13 year old girls sometimes. And I'm a boy mom now, but they're going to go through similar feelings of pressures and stuff doubt insecurities. And, I just, I realize now my adult brain, I don't always think about that stuff anymore or appreciate it to the degree that you did in that instance.

And I really love how you put the pause button on. You checked in, you made sure she felt comfortable before anyone moved forward. And on that note, I want to just overview I'm hearing from you are the steps that parents can take to make this a successful experience. And first and foremost, I'm hearing no what you need and want get really clear on what your family needs in the experience and what you want as an outcome, and then choose the photographer accordingly.

You gave two different potential sort of routes if you will. So, which route makes sense for your family and your budget? Then have a conversation beforehand with the photographer, both to prep them for your family's unique needs and sharing what you need and want. Being about all of that, also making sure, like you said, what's the flexibility? What's the cancellation policy? What happens if we're not feeling it that day.

So that's the pre-work and then when the day arrives, making sure everybody's comfortable before you jump in, you know, we're not going to be robots and just stand and smile. It´s to other, choosing a comfortable setting and constantly checking in with your kids, with the parents, with each other, with the photographer, having that open communication, there, you don't kick it off with your ankle. Hey! Stand up straight. know, checking in.

Don Orkoskey20:42

The elbow here and yeah.

Emily Melious20:43

Exactly! Just being in tune to those off moments. know it in our kids, something's you know, up with them and I like that you are also in tune as the photographer. And then, you know, if you're not feeling it, you're not feeling it being willing to say, we're not feeling it today. We need to do this a different day. And sure that it's not a traumatic experience by us forcing it. So that's what I'm gathering.

And I you know, there's a lot of, I think grace in your process, right? Just allowing for us to be human, for us to have in bad days, for us to being unique and having different needs.

And as long as we recognize that, and that's why I actually love candid pictures. I'm a big fan of the non posed stuff, because that's the real, that's what it really is. That's the authentic view of who we are. And that's what I'm really just gathering from your approach, is just authenticity. Being real, recognizing the people as they are, and then just putting them in their own best light, but not trying to make them somebody they're not. And hello, Mothers of Misfits. I mean, that's what we're here for. We just want to highlight what's great about every person, but also what's different them.

Don Orkoskey22:00

Right. And that's, um, some, some families need, you know, uh, we have 15 minutes and then, and then we're going to really, um, you know, we're going to be done, right. This, my kid they're there know 15 minutes, and then they're going to be done. And if I know that going in, then I know okay, let's let's do this quickly. Let's be efficient.

Right? Um some folks are like you know what, at some point we might have to stop for some self-soothing. Right? Um and that's fine too. So finding a photographer that that is not going to say you have 60 minutes, right. Or you have 45 minutes, there's a a really popular a thing called mini sessions, that a lot of photographers do these days. So it's you you're they're booked half hour and you have about 20 minutes of time. And again it's sort of that that Sears style. So, now they they oftentimes are a parks or things like that. There's some people that do beautiful work there, but if we need to stop after five minutes for, you know, for a little break and to self-sooth and and to just just breathe, right?

If you've got 20 minutes you're not going to get through that session. If your, if your family again, if, if the kids are like, uh, I've got 15 minutes and then that's gonna be it, go for it. Then a mini-sessions probably great because those photographers know, got, you know, I've got 15 minutes I'm going to get you bang bang bang bang right?

So, um, but yeah, if you need more time, if you, if you need that space of photographer, who's not saying like, oh no! I've got to go. I've got another session. Right?

Emily Melious23:38

Which puts extra pressure. Everybody feels the pressure, to force it, which goes against everything we've just said. Just don't add any more pressure. Know what you need and want and, and work with that. Not against it. Love that.

Don Orkoskey23:52

Absolutely. Because the kids feel that pressure to.

Emily Melious23:54


Don Orkoskey23:54


It's not just that mom and dad feel that pressure of the kids. And and uh, you know the situation that uh that I've referenced about the 13 year old, you know, she definitely was feeling that like we have to get this done, we have to do, you know. Like we've got time. We have the day. You know, obviously we're not going to spend six hours trying to get this photo, but you know, don't look at the clock. Don't think about the clock, we're we're here till we get it done and we're going to get it looking great.

Emily Melious24:22

Well, I love how you approach this and I'm sure there's a lot of people listening who now want you to take their family photos. And I will tell all of you, because sometimes it's hard to capture by hearing it or writing it down. We will put all of Don's contact information in our episode insider's newsletter.

If you don't know what that is, we will send you an email every Tuesday, when a new episode drops, it's really just extra information about our guests, including how to get ahold of them. And in this case, how to potentially work with Don.

So if you're not already signed up to receive those, make sure to go to MothersOfMisfits.com, scroll to the bottom of the page. All you have to do is just put in your email address. It'll take you 30 seconds or less. So make sure to do that.

Don, this has been a really interesting conversation, cause it's on a topic that we haven't covered before, but it's so universal. I mean, we've all experienced this and maybe others out there have sweat through their clothes too. Maybe I'm not the only one.

Don Orkoskey25:20

You are absolutely not the only one. I've I've I've seen that experience. Yeah, there are people like that.

Emily Melious25:27

Ah, well, thanks for helping us make this experience, which is so important to all of us, a better one, and just appreciate the work that you're doing and how you're being an advocate, not only for yourself, but also for the families that you serve.

Don Orkoskey25:41

Well, it's, it's super important to me, you know, again, at the end of the day, not causing harm, important thing for me, is the most important thing. So the picture comes after that. Right? So thank you. Thank you so much.

Mothers of Misfits25:56

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