Disabled model Hannah Harpin and photographer Rachel Stewart-Illingworth are battling to fight stigma
Rachel Stewart Illingworth is on a mission to make us think differently about the way people with disabilities are viewed. Her striking image of disabled model Hannah Harpin won her the top award at the Wedding and Portrait Photographers International in Las Vegas. Now, as well as her successful baby and child photography business in Tadcaster, she wants to raise awareness of people with disabilities and reduce the stigma that surrounds them. “Everyone has a story to tell and it’s those stories that fascinate me and what I try to portray in my photographs,” she says.
Hannah is a prime example. The 19-year-old was born with Hay-Wells Syndrome, a rare condition which affects just 30 people worldwide and leads to the abnormal development of the skin, hair, nails, teeth,eyes and hearing.
“I have been bullied most of my life, at school especially by boys, being sworn at in the street by strangers or people assuming I have cancer due to my baldness. I lost all my confidence,” says Hannah. She is the only person in her family with the genetic condition, also known as ectodermal dysplasia. Despite the challenges she faces, she always dreamed of becoming a model and breaking the stereotypes of the industry.
“When I was young I wanted to be a model but people said I would never make it,” she says. “I want to be a model so I can help the fight against ableism and other forms of discrimination because I believe that everybody should have equal rights and be on the same level. If children don’t see people with disabilities and other differences within the fashion industry and beyond, then they won’t start to understand that we are just the same as them; we have the same rights and the same hopes and the same dreams.”
Hannah is signed with APL Models and Zebedee Management, which specialises in supplying diverse models and is passionate about redefining the perception of beauty and disability. She has been featured in Italian Vogue and is determined to get more people with disabilities into mainstream fashion shoots.
“I started to follow Hannah on Instagram and saw that she had been signed to a couple of modelling agencies as well as fighting for the rights of disabled people,” says mother-of-one Rachel. “I really wanted to work with her but thought she must be based in London. I couldn’t believe it when I messaged her and she came back and said she lived in Yorkshire.”
Ironically Hannah, from Mirfield, thought the same about Rachel, but the pair eventually met and hit it off. “I wanted to be involved because I want children to know it’s okay to be born with a disability,” says Hannah. “When I was growing up, there was no-one like me to look up to. I want people to know it’s okay to be different. It was very hard. I used to blame my mum because what I have is genetic but I now realise that it’s not anyone’s fault and definitely not hers.”
Hannah wears a long blonde wig most of the time, but when she is modelling she wants to embrace her baldness. Rachel decided to shoot her holding her wig around her.
“I remember crying because I didn’t have any hair as a child and I was jealous of other children but now I embrace the fact that I’m bald – it’s really empowering,” adds Hannah.
“I wanted them to see a different perspective – I wanted to show Hannah’s vulnerability but also her incredible strength,” continues Rachel.
It was that image that stunned the judges in Las Vegas and saw Rachel named grand winner of the portrait division. Her photograph was given a score of 100, certifying it as platinum, which judges award only once every few years. “I couldn’t believe it. There was this massive picture that I had taken of Hannah on the stage. I FaceTimed her from the ceremony in Las Vegas to tell her we had won and introduced her to all the judges as they all wanted to meet her. It was an incredible moment.”
Rachel never set out to be a professional photographer. She studied social work at university which she believes helps her connect with her subjects. Photography was just a hobby.
“My photography journey began in 2012. My best friend, Lou, and I went on a random trip to York on Boxing Day and both bought a bridge camera. Over the next year or two, I took images of my daughter, Marcy and posted them on FaceBook. People would comment and ask if I would take images of their children, so I organised a shoot at a local village hall and booked out the day. I remember being so proud of the images I took and still love them now.” From a studio in a box room, she moved to a bigger premises in Collingham before switching to her current studio in Tadcaster where she concentrates on baby, child and maternity photography. She has photographed babies as young as five days old and then often follows the child through its development with a photographic record for the family. “You can’t rush baby photographs,” she says. “If I have a baby photo shoot, I block the entire day out so that people don’t feel rushed. It is about making people feel comfortable. I treat it as more of an experience for them. It is very much a growing industry. Even when I had Marcy in 2010 it wasn’t a big thing.”
Rachel named her business Evelyn and Her Sweet Peas, in memory of her mother who died 11 year ago. “My mum’s name was Evelyn and her favourite flower was a sweet pea – people think I’m Evelyn but that’s my mum,” she says.
She is also developing another side to her business, Rachel Stewart-Illingworth, which will be more her bespoke portraits.
Rachel’s photographs are more akin to fine art portraits. She loves to read about artists and photography and is a lover of Rembrandt and his use of light. She uses a number of techniques to create the effects she is looking for and likes to include personal objects, often animals, into her pictures.
One of her striking images involves a girl captured holding a snake.
“Her family actually own a business that breeds snakes and so it was part of her story and what the family wanted,” explains Rachel.
Sometimes she does the shoot with the children and the animals together, but safety is paramount and so often she Photoshops them onto her portraits, including a raccoon, lizard, ferret, a skunk called Pongo and an owl.
“Sometimes things just happen and you look at the back of your camera and think – that’s the one. I am an insane animal lover, one of those annoying people that stops to stroke dogs, talks to them or lines up with the kids to hold an animal at parties. With regards to my work, I wanted it to be different, I wanted animals that aren’t used as much, or harder to work with. I researched, asked on Facebook – much to many’s entertainment – and managed to work with lots of quirky animals such as a raven, racoon, bearded dragons, meerkats, skunks, snakes, tortoise, giant African snails, owls, mice, rats and a chameleon.
“I really am in my element. Its hard though, as often the animals have other ideas but sometimes they’ll do something I didn’t plan and it’ll just make the image that bit more special. The animals I work with are always pets or rescued and very tame.”
Rachel is keen to expand this side of her business further, especially working with more people with disabilities and mental health issues. “I love people and animals and I think that is definitely reflected in my work. I love to tell a story and take people on the journey” she says.