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Photographer finds a new kind of supermodel in developmentally disabled young adults

NIAGARA FALLS – Rick Guidotti, a New York City high fashion photographer, spent years taking photos of supermodels considered to be the height of beauty.

But in 1997 he was struck by the undiscovered beauty of young woman with albinism.

He eventually left high fashion and went in search of other ways to define beauty, traveling the world to capture the images of young people and adults affected by genetic and developmental disabilities.

Earlier this month, Guidotti, the founder of the nonprofit Positive Exposure unveiled a photo exhibition, “Change How You See, See How You Change,” which features models from Rivershore Inc., a Niagara Falls organization that supports people with developmental disabilities. The exhibition will remain on permanent display in the Golisano Center for Community Health on the Niagara Falls Memorial Medical Center campus, 533 10th St.

His goal is to both change how others see beauty, as well as encourage positive self-esteem in those who often feel rejected by society.

“I was successful in high fashion, but the thing that was always so frustrating was that I was always being told who was beautiful. As a fashion photographer you listen to the editors – this is the face, this is the season – but as an artist I never saw beauty just on the covers of magazines. I see beauty everywhere. I always have,” said Guidotti, 58.

He said he worked with the Golisano Center and Rivershore to create a photographic exhibition that celebrates people with developmental disabilities and allows them to be portrayed by their passions, their talents and their lives, instead of a medical condition.

He said he spent a whole day with seven models from Rivershore, creating seven stunning 2-by-3-foot, color photos that are face-mounted on shiny glass, in the center of the Golisano Center. The images will reflect the face of the viewer as they look at the photos, allowing the viewer to celebrate their own differences as well. The exhibit serves as a welcome to patients and their families who come to the recently opened $7 million Golisano Center, Western New York’s first and only center dedicated to providing integrated health care to people with special needs, especially those with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

Guidotti said he had a larger exhibition at the George Eastman Museum in Rochester, which included images of 25 developmentally disabled people from the Rochester community. It was at this exhibition where the founders of the new Golisano Center asked him to create a similar exhibition on a smaller scale for Niagara Falls.

“My answer was, ‘Yes, yes. When do I start?’ ” said Guidotti.

Guidotti is a native of Philadelphia. He has just finished an award-winning documentary, “On Beauty,” which follows a Kenyan woman who faced teasing due to a birthmark across her face. He has also released a book, “Change How You See, See How You Change,” which celebrates genetic diversity and his nearly 20-year journey. His award-winning work and his story has been featured in a variety of magazines and news programs, including a cover story in Life magazine.

What led you to explore beauty beyond high fashion models?

I was leaving my studio one day and I saw a girl waiting for a bus at Park and 20th Street with albinism. She didn’t have pigmentation in her hair, or her skin or her eyes. The common term is albino. She was so beautiful and I realized instantly that this kid was never included in the beauty standard. When I went to do more research I only found those horrible images.

Horrible?

Kids up against walls in doctors offices in their underwear with those black bars across their eyes.

So you really weren’t seeing them as models?

You weren’t seeing them as people. They were images of disease, of despair. And it wasn’t just people with albinism, it was people across the board in those medical textbooks – genetic, physical, intellectual, developmental disabilities. They were all featured as specimens. They were diseases, images of sadness. I realized something needed to be done to change that.

What was your first step into this field?

At first I contacted a support group for kids with albinism and I said, “Let’s change the way the world sees beauty.” They were a little hesitant at first, but they also understood there wasn’t anything positive out there.

So you just started with albinism?

That’s how I started in 1997. The first girl I photographed was so beautiful, but she walked in with her shoulders hunched, her head down, no eye contact, one word answers. This kid had zero self-esteem, which was in direct response to the bullying and teasing she had experienced in her high school classroom. I thought how was I going to photograph this stunning kid. She was so beautiful, but also so vulnerable. Out of respect for her I decided to photograph her like I would any supermodel, with the fan on and the music. I literally held up a mirror to her face and I said, “Take a look at yourself. You’re magnificent.” And then she saw what I saw.

Is this what led to Positive Exposure?

This is what became the driving philosophy at that moment. She needed to change the way she saw herself and the community needed to change the way that they saw her. And that became the title of our book, “Change How You See. See How You Change.” The book just came out about a week ago.

What were you doing before the book came out?

I’ve been doing (Positive Exposure) for 20 years. We have traveled the world, creating opportunities for the world to see beauty. I got a lot of attention and was featured as a cover story in Life magazine and everybody saw that and I got all kinds of awards. People said there was a universal message. It’s not just about albinism, but celebrating all differences.

What led you to move beyond just albinism?

There were so many kids that were just ostracized, segregated or thought of as special needs or different or not belonging. I said no, no, no. We are told what’s beautiful. Let me show you where beauty really exists.

What do you say when someone asks you what is beautiful?

Beauty is what you find in your heart – what you see in your own heart. What we know of beauty today is what we are told is beautiful. Once you let that go you realize beauty surrounds you and it’s amazing. It’s a vibration in the air. It’s electric.

Why is this mission of Positive Exposure so important?

We create magazine articles. We create programs and go to schools. I go to medical schools now. Everywhere I go I come in with photos to show that medical student in training or doctor in training that it is never about what you are treating, but always who you are treating. Putting front row and center – humanity.

Why has this gotten so much attention?

It’s so important. You and I will walk down the street and see someone with a difference and we only have two options. The first option is to stare and we all have learned that staring is not nice, so we look away. But I’ve heard from all of my friends that looking away is sometimes more painful than the staring. The idea behind Positive Exposure is to create photographic exhibitions, public exhibitions, so we gently steady the lens of the public at large before they try to turn away – to steady that gaze so they see beauty. So they look in that person’s eyes and don’t see a diagnosis, but a person. It’s so empowering to watch a community get it and see them celebrate that individual and not their diagnosis.

email: nfischer@buffnews.com Know a Niagara County resident who would make an interesting question-and-answer column? Write to: Niagara Weekend Q&A, The Buffalo News, P.O. Box 100, Buffalo, NY 14240, or email niagaranews@buffnews.com.

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