On Photographing Children Awaiting Adoption, an Interview with Jodi Swanson, Founder of Women of Strength
- Heart Gallery of Illinois
- March 1, 2018
Jodi Swanson believes that being strong with matters of the heart is not a choice – she simply has to climb that hill. As the Founder of Women of Strength, with a Facebook following of 67,000, she has created a powerful force behind the matters of HER heart – one of which is assuring adoptions for the many waiting children in Illinois foster care. As one of the primary photographers for the Heart Gallery of Illinois, the State’s photo listing of children awaiting adoption, Jodi spends her time with these children and documents them in ways that shows their personalities, increasing their chances of finding a forever family. Jodi sat down with us to discuss what she sees, how it affects her, and what she thinks the future will bring for these children that she champions. Enjoy every word of this interview with this amazing Woman of Strength.
What has surprised you the most about photographing children awaiting adoption from foster care?
I am surprise most by how many people have adoption/foster stories or a connection to it in some way. When I explain that I photograph children available for adoption from foster care, the most amazing stories have been shared with me. From people I really respect being raised in foster care, to people searching for their own adoptive parents, to stories of how they found the children they adopted. Every single story I hear related to a child in foster care is incredible. These kids are, by far, some of the strongest kids out there.
Why did you decide to become involved?
I grew up in a place where many people, at the time, could not afford to pay a high-end professional photographer. I remember looking at black and white photography thinking, if I were a professional photographer, my dream would be to randomly surprise someone, with a photo, that may not normally be able to afford one. I never thought being a photographer was in the cards for me and about 20 years later it was.
Pablo Picasso said, “The meaning of life is to find your gift, the purpose of life is to give it away.” I went online searching ideas for how to volunteer with photography. I found a number of different ideas and I also kind of found my own random groove of giving back in ways that may be unconventional, but just feel right. One of the things that really connected me to Let It Be Us, is how much they value the role that a photo can play in finding a child a home. Professional photos make a serious difference in the speed at which the child is adopted. My goal when I take a photo of a child in foster care is to hit someone straight in the gut with it. I don’t want it to be an easy click away. I want that look, those eyes, that face, that feeling to sit with them for a long time. I want it to bring them to action, whether it is to spread the word or choose that child to adopt.
How long does it take you to photograph a child?
I feel if I show up take their photo and leave, I would be no different than all the other people who have come and gone in their lives. I have had kids show up with hardly any clothes on thinking I am there to photograph their bruises. Almost every child asking me if they can see me again. They are truly unique individuals, which often speak to you like an adult because of what they have been through. There are times I have sat and talked with them about life for an hour before I ever pick up my camera.
What have you learned about these children since you started photographing them?
What I have learned through photographing these children is it seems like they feel someone sees them. Often, they feel invisible and when they are being photographed I realize they feel interesting. I had this one situation where I had to photograph this young man in a room about 6 x 8 with only a bench, a table, all white walls and a deflated ball. He didn’t want his photo taken and after I took his first photo I showed it to him and told him what I saw. I only needed 3-5 shots of him, but I ended up taking 300+ of him in that room. I often take many more shots than is required because that is how we get to know each other and quite frankly, because we are just having so much fun.
Is it hard for you to do this?
This is a question I get asked a lot, along with, “How do you not adopt them all?” There are some I have definitely bonded with, as-if they are my own child. I’d be lying if I said it’s not hard to say “Goodbye.” In the moment when I am shooting I am in the zone, but if it is a difficult situation, it can keep me up at night. To be honest, I think about these kids and check on everyone of their statuses until…well, I guess I haven’t stopped. The first time I saw the word “matched” to a kid that kept me up at night, I just cried. He probably crossed my mind every day, but that match…there are few things in my life that have come close to that joy.
Are you a mother? Tell us about that.
I am a single mother to a 9 1/2 year old boy named Lincoln. Some would say he has sensory issues…I call that a future artist. Some would say he is too mischievous…I call that a future engineer. Either way, he is why I often get called to photograph a boy that may not want his photo taken or it “could be tricky.” 9 1/2 year old humor does wonders at breaking through the boy who sits in front of your camera and says “I am not going to smile.” He is why I understand these boys that “appear” to not be listening to me, while staring at a broken bike, are actually the ones trying to figure out how they would fix it in their head. They are smart as a whip, have already read through you and moved onto the bike. This is when you have to understand that and ask them how they would fix the bike and photograph them showing you.
What is Women of Strength?
Women of Strength is a photography project I started at a difficult point in my life. It is a project for women, and men too actually, to help people feel less alone. Through photos I tell the story of emotions we often have and don’t discuss or I share the stories of women I meet that I think are real-life super heroes.
What is the future of Women of Strength, who are some of your upcoming featured guests?
Well I am an antsy person, so I have a few things up my sleeve right now. However, next week happens to be a very special week as there are two really touching events happening. One is the adoption of a little one whose story makes me cry, every time I think about it. She is a two-foot wonder woman. I know we will be sharing this story, so I don’t want to give it away early. But it is an impactful one. The other story is of a woman who lost her mother to cancer and is shaving her head for St. Baldrick’s, two months before her wedding. She is doing this, not only because it is an important cause, but also it is a way to have her mother with her on her wedding day.
If you could impart your wisdom, what would be your words of advice for the children that you photograph who are awaiting adoption?
Some of the smartest people I know grew up in foster care. Some of the most loving talented people in my life grew up in foster care. Some of the biggest fighters I know grew up in foster care and the world is a better and stronger because of them. They are giving, caring, love deeply and make a difference in the world. They are all grown up and all of them have lives filled with more people that love them than they know what to do with. They all have family that wouldn’t trade them for anything in the world. They are not alone; they have love and talent that people envy.
So will you … I want to watch your story play out … we all do. So make it a good one!
Learn more about Jodi Swanson and Women of Strength by following her very popular Facebook page here.
Let It Be Us is a 501(c)(3) with the mission of adoption and education of children in Illinois foster care. Learn more about their work here. See all of the Let It Be Us Finding Forever Families events – recruiting foster and adoptive parents – scheduled throughout Illinois in 2018 here.
See just a few of the many Illinois children awaiting adoption on the Heart Gallery of Illinois.