Powerful Portraits Honor the Stories of People With Physical Differences

Portrait of a Burn Survivor by Sujata Seita

Catrin was returning from a ski trip in the French Alps, when the coach’s brakes failed and the crash happened. 96% of her body suffered third degree burns leaving her with a 1 in a 1000 chance for survival. Following three months in coma, 200 surgical procedures and 4 years of rehab, Catrin defied destiny.
To the prying eyes that meet her every time she steps out of the house, she looks back at them with tenderness and empathy.
‘If my scars make you feel better about yours then I am happy for you. I understand you. And that’s what I expect from you as well. Empathy, not sympathy. My scars make me special… unique… differently beautiful. They are life’s brush strokes… and I am in love with this painting.

Photography can be an empowering tool used to tell stories of those whose voices might struggle to be heard. An image can communicate a lot without words, as is the case with Sujata Setia’s project called Changing the Conversation. The series features people with physical differences as a way to honor their resilience in the face of obstacles.

The intimate portraits were inspired by a simple question from Setia’s child. “My 8-year-old daughter returned from school one day and asked me if she was beautiful,” she tells My Modern Met. “As a girl, who grew up in a patriarchal society back in a small town in India, I have battled all my life with the constructs of beautiful or ugly, boy or girl, normal or abnormal, rich or poor, pink or blue.

“For me, this world has always been divided into binaries, and I noticed my daughter started to develop a similar worldview. And so, I started this series as an effort to work toward the expansion of humanity. A world without exceptions. A world that moves away from binaries. It is an ongoing series.”

Setia, who works under the name But Natural Photography, specializes in newborn, pregnancy, and family portraits. She sees a lot of families, and that’s where Changing the Conversation began. “My first photoshoot was with Amber, a mum who gave birth to a 13-pound baby and was left with what I call ‘medals of honor’ on her body.” But the project shifted when she met Cartrin, a 96% burn survivor. “I realized that there was a lot more that needs to be spoken about. I thought I would build awareness around scars, visible and invisible both. That one conversation with Catrin, changed the course of this project entirely.”

Unfortunate things can happen to us, but they aren’t all of what makes us who we are. And in these dark situations, light can still find its way in. “I want these images to show that nothing is either this or that,” Setia explains. “That the world isn’t just good or bad. Pretty or ugly. Man or woman. The world exists beyond these binaries.”

Scroll down to see the powerful images and read the accompanying captions.

Photographer Sujata Setia has created an ongoing series titled Changing the Conversation.

Portrait Photography by Sujata Seita

On 14 February 1990, flight IA605 flying from Bombay to Bangalore, crashed killing 92 of 146 people on board; three of whom were Tulsi’s mother, father, and 5-year-old brother.
“I remember fighting with my brother about who will get to sit on the window seat and the next thing I hear was my grandma’s voice.
‘Tulsi your mum, dad, and Kamlesh are no more.’
Next few weeks were a blur and then came the time to meet the new me.
Not the 10-year-old boisterous Me… but the orphan, burn survivor Me.
From there on the word ‘ugly’ became my identity.
‘Who will marry her? Who will give her a job? She is so ugly!’—that sort of became my narrative at 10. Growing up, job rejection letters stated my face wasn’t fit for the job.
Life forced me to sign on for social benefits. An incident that day changed my life. I was waiting for a bus to goto the job center and a car pulled up right next to me. Next, I heard 4 men shouting at me, ‘You are so ugly. You should have died.’
I came very close to giving up that day. I came very close to taking my life.
But instead I chose to NOT LET MYSELF DOWN.
I got onto the bus and reached the job center to sign up. The lady there was just the most compassionate person ever. She made me realize that there is goodness in this world.
That was a turning point in my life. That’s the day I realized that maybe I’m not the most beautiful person in the world but I am certainly not ugly.
I chose to face my trauma and I healed myself.
I am now a reiki master. A spiritual coach. I help people with generational trauma and abuse so they are able to break that cycle. I am a model/ influencer/ speaker… things that my 10-year-old self wouldn’t imagine doing. Because she was told she was ugly.”
“Will you be able to hold that little 10-year-old You in your arms now and tell her with conviction that you will protect her?” I asked Tulsi.
“OF COURSE YES!! I will protect her and together we will and are living our best life.”

Portrait Photography by Sujata Seita

“I have wondered what it would be like to have more than one child, if I need to hold them both tight at the same time,” James said as he laughed casually.
9 years ago, James lost his arm and leg in an accident.
Ashley is a congenital amputee. Which means that she was born with the lower part of her right arm missing.
“I didn’t want to have children because I thought I wouldn't be able to hold her. How will I support her head while feeding? How will I tie her shoe laces? Or change her clothes… but it all worked itself out. Elara realises that mummy and daddy just have to do things differently. So she works with us on solutions.”
“You know how it is… with being limb different… you just have to be persistent.”
Ashley is a successful model and an advocate for families that have a limb different member. Since his accident, James has worked with Japanese gaming giant Konami to personally design and develop his own advanced bionic arm—earning himself the nickname Metal Gear Man. Since then, he's become a speaker, BBC presenter, and model.
They have the most beautiful 2-year-old daughter Elara, who truly is a ray of sunshine.

Portrait Photography by Sujata Seita

When I met Hannah for this shoot, I had to give no instructions. She asked me simply what my purpose was and I said “A world without exceptions.”She then went and sat at the spot against the backdrop and looked straight at the camera and her eyes; her soul spoke back to me. This is her story.
“Hi. I am Hannah. I am 18. I was born with a rare genetic condition called Hay-Wells Syndrome. There are only about 30 other people like me in this world. My condition has left my hair, teeth, and skin undeveloped.
It all started in college… the bullying. That's when we become self-conscious and start noticing the differences. It was too much, just too much to bear. I developed an eating disorder as a result. I am still battling with it.
I remember retaliating if they bullied me. I knew deep down inside that it wasn’t my fault but I couldn’t stop myself. That is what the bullies wanted. They wanted power over me. They wanted to dim my light.
But instead I decided to dim theirs. I started to ignore them and their jokes. I have forgiven them because everyone deserves a chance to redeem themselves. Our younger self does not represent us as an adult.
If people stare at me now… which they do… all the time… then I just smile at them. I encourage people to ask me questions about my condition because I want to increase awareness about disabilities. That is why I became a model; so I could represent my tribe.
I want this world to become a collective union, where we can all embrace each others’ uniqueness. And until that doesn’t happen; I promise to never judge you, laugh at you, ridicule you or make you feel unworthy… even if you choose to not do the same for me.
Because I am Me. I am kind, strong, compassionate and filled with an inner glow. Because I am more than just a ‘rare genetic condition.'”

Portrait Photography by Sujata Seita

“‘101 Dalmatians. Cookie dough. Spotty Face,’ those were the names my classmates secretly kept for me.
Growing up, I hated myself.
I hated everyone around me.
No one looked like me… I didn’t look like them.
I thought I was ugly… horrible.
Those feelings took me to a very dark place. My relationships suffered… with people I loved the most…
Until 3 years ago.
My children were the turning point for me.
I remember that day so vividly. We were going on a family holiday and I was picking clothes that would help me cover myself. I didn’t want to be seen…
…and I just asked my self this one question: “What kind of a role model am I to my children, if I can’t embrace who I am?”
I don’t want them to worry to fit in. I want them to be comfortable with who they are.
And so that day, I chose to be ME!
Hi my name is Cheryl.
I was born with congenital Melanocytic nevus (CMN).
These are my scars.
This is me. I love me. I embrace me. I wear me with respect, confidence and endless joy, for I… AM A CELEBRATION!”

The series features people with disabilities and burn survivors as a way to honor their resilience in the face of obstacles.

Portrait Photography by Sujata Seita

“Aged two and a half years young I was burned with boiling water whilst playing a game of ‘Hide n Seek’ with my sister. I was hiding behind the bathroom door and accidentally fell backwards as my sister pushed the door open. I was rushed to the local hospital where we were told I wouldn’t survive. I was quickly transferred to another hospital and put on life support with no hope of survival, but weeks later I pulled through.
Growing up, I was taught to embrace my body and was often told I was beautiful, but as my 20s approached I began to hate my body.
One day whilst walking across a park with my mum, I was approached by a lady that told her I could be a runway model. My mother and I went to the agency later that day and whilst there I was told to fill out some forms. On the forms it asked whether I had any scars. I showed the form to my mother and was quite upset. She told me that it was okay and that I needed to be honest on the form.
When the lady came to take the form, she read it and quickly ushered me and my mother out of the agency. She told me that I could perhaps be a hand model but couldn’t possibly be a runway model with scars.
I was very upset by this and my world was turned upside down, and went on to suffer with depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts.
Six years ago, I walked London Fashion Week—twice—and this September I did it yet again.
Through my campaigning, standing outside London Fashion Week protesting with groups of ladies, I have now shown that anything is possible and everyone should be included in society.
I’m now in the process of setting up @lovedisfiguretalent agency so that we can see everything Diverse and Equal.
I am a Burn Survivor Thriving, Campaigner for people with Visible/Hidden Difference & Disabilities. I also hold two accolades: Point of Light Award & Boots Wellness Warrior, Women of the Year Award.” – Sylvia

Portrait Photography by Sujata Seita

“Hi, my name is Hattie. I was born with a congenital cataract and congenital glaucoma. This meant I required multiple operations as a baby leaving me with an enlarged black eye. Over the last few years this eye began to cause me pain and the consultant recommended I had it removed and replaced with a prosthetic, or the eye was at risk of rupturing and the pain would not ease. I have spent the majority of my life with a visible difference. I also developed psoriasis a few years ago, with red, sore patches of skin and nail changes. Some of these conditions result in stares and questions from strangers. I always try to keep an open mind to others’ approaches and feel I can now use it as an opportunity to educate and raise awareness. Over time I have grown in confidence, embracing my image and accepting its uniqueness, determined that my self-worth will not be defined by my outward appearance. I hope for a world where individuality is celebrated and normalized and desire to be part of that movement.”

Accompanying the powerful images are captions, often featuring the voice of the subject.

Portrait Photography by Sujata Seita

“Hi. My name is Erika. I have Neurofibromatosis type 2, (NF2), a rare genetic disorder that causes tumors to grow on nerves, mainly in the brain and spine.
NF2 takes and continues taking, and while it does, we are left with physical losses like loss of vision, hearing and facial function, as well as less tangible ones like the loss of communicating with those we love, lost connections, relationships, and opportunities.
Many people don't talk about the importance of grieving these losses, just as one would grieve the loss of a loved one.
Processing grief is tiring and grueling but ultimately, it renews our strength. As we are thrown into yet another cycle of grief and loss, amidst surgeries, radiation, and drug trials, we find slivers of hope.
So, we keep going, adapting, evolving, and navigating the world we were not quite prepared for.
We celebrate life and advocate for ourselves and others. And though we continue to face the mental, physical, and emotional challenges, we don't do it alone.
We find and cherish our support systems—those who never left, but instead learned new ways to connect and communicate, held us up and never questioned our strength or our beauty, even if we might have done so, ourselves.”

Portrait Photography by Sujata Seita

Raiche was 18 months old when she was burnt in a house fire. Being a Black-British, female, burn survivor has come with its multiple narratives for Raiche. It is a story of marginalisation at multiple levels. A story of perceptions. “The way you look matters a lot in Black culture, so that was a long journey of acceptance for me… understanding, where I actually stand.
I felt like an outsider, but judgement was quick to come by from others as well. ‘Oh you don’t talk Black, you don’t act black,’ I was often reminded.”
Raiche and Catrin came together for this shoot so we could explore the concept of finding oneness in our differences. The role of finding our community, our tribe in helping us navigate the parody of life…to be… to feel… normal.
Together these two amazing women have and are continuing to help redefine “beauty” and normalize facial differences in this world.
I asked them what they feel about being called an “inspiration” every so often?
“Ya! Im living my best life. I wonder sometimes when people walk up to me and say I inspire them. While I am just living my life… I somehow inspire. I guess it’s because scars have a beautiful way of telling a story… a shared story of many commons.”

Portrait Photography by Sujata Seita

“I was told, my child won’t be born alive. At my 20 weeks pregnancy scan, she was diagnosed with a cystic hygroma—a fluid-filled sac that results from a blockage in the lymphatic system.
Doctors feared that the large cysts compressing her airways would potentially lead to fatal breathing problems at birth, and we were given the devastating news that Eden wouldn’t make it past the first day. But at 12:01 p.m. on August 9, 2016, miracle baby Eden defied all the odds and was delivered by C-section in a room full of doctors, pediatric surgeons and nurses. She was born with a lymphatic malformation in the form of a mass on her face and neck.
Five years and nearly 20 surgeries later, Eden has kept surprising doctors and defying the odds to become a perfect, happy, and beautiful little girl.
Since Eden was born, I have become her advocate in a bid to help kick the stigma of her visible difference and disability.
I won’t deny that unfortunately Eden has been subject to many nasty comments from trolls online about the way she looks.
But none of that will stop me from being my daughter’s voice, by standing up for Eden and everyone with a visible difference.” – Chelsea. Mother of Eden Sue (The girl who is “differently special”)

Portrait Photography by Sujata Seita

“I have a condition called spinal muscular atrophy (SMA Type 2.) I was diagnosed when I was 18 months old. Its a muscle wasting condition. So as I get older, I get weaker. So when I was around 15 years old, I went on a ventilator, full-time.
A lot of people think that it really gets me down. It did in the beginning but now I just get on with life. I have goals that I want to achieve!!
My 24-hour ventilator has not stopped me from becoming a model and educating people about disabilities. I just feel people need to understand that we are no different from you and so we should be treated the same way as you. We just need extra support.
Don’t be scared of using the word ‘disabled.’ Say ‘disabled.’ It is fine.
I try to educate people about disabilities through humor and through trends on Instagram and TikTok. Many of those posts do well. But I also get a lot of negative comments.
It gets a bit much sometimes. A lot of them are borderline death threats.
‘I am going to unplug your machine.’
‘I am going to push you down the stairs.’
But I get on with what I need to do. I express who I am… my body confidence… through the pictures I post with other people on social media. So that they feel confident in their bodies as well.
I just want to say: Disabled people do have fulfilling happy lives. So please don’t think of us as inspirations because we are happily getting on with our lives.”

Portrait Photography by Sujata Seita

September 2013, Sassy lost her sight to a deteriorating eye condition called Uveitis Iritis. The vision loss started at 14 and she lost major chunks of it by the time she was 16. Eight years ago, she went in for an eye operation with the knowledge that the results could go either way. Her eye had had so many operations on it earlier that it had become too weak and damaged and there was a high chance that it could not withstand another.
Yet, the eternal optimist—Sassy, went into the surgery with a positive mindset. Unfortunately, however, she came out of the surgery, with blood over her eye… which meant that no light could get in.
Once the blood subsided… Sassy could see light or what you can call “light perception.” She can tell day from night. But that is all!
When we went out for her photo session, I noticed Sassy looking toward the sky… Her beautiful eyes were chasing the light…
The next five years were a rollercoaster of emotions for Sassy.
“I have been diagnosed with depression. I have taken it out on people I care about the most. I get angry and frustrated. And there are days I have truly wished that I could turn back the clock and never have the operation. I want people reading this to know that no matter what, you are not alone and that you will come out on the other side. Because here I am… telling you this story… BECAUSE I GOT PAST IT!!” she says.
“For years I was tethering on the edge between two worlds. The sighted world and the blind world.
As my world became darker. More shadow than light… I was left behind.
I was still me, I wasn’t different, but to others I was. I had changed.
With my future distorting before my very own eyes, I didn’t know which path to take. But with each step, it became a triumph, a celebration, and a new milestone reached.
I face misconceptions, prejudice, and discrimination. But I also face love, support, compassion and inclusion.
I see the beauty everywhere I go. I hear the laughter and I feel the joy.
Now I stand out from the crowd and I shine.
I carry the weight of who I am with pride. Everything I want to be and everything I can be.” – Poem by @sassywyattofficial (The girl who sees light.)

Sujata Setia: Website | Instagram | Facebook

My Modern Met granted permission to feature photos by Sujata Setia.

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Sara Barnes

Sara Barnes is a Staff Editor at My Modern Met, Manager of My Modern Met Store, and co-host of the My Modern Met Top Artist Podcast. As an illustrator and writer living in Seattle, she chronicles illustration, embroidery, and beyond through her blog Brown Paper Bag and Instagram @brwnpaperbag. She wrote a book about embroidery artist Sarah K. Benning titled 'Embroidered Life' that was published by Chronicle Books in 2019. Sara is a graduate of the Maryland Institute College of Art. She earned her BFA in Illustration in 2008 and MFA in Illustration Practice in 2013.
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