Samantha Bishop was spent. A single mom, she’d dedicated years to fighting for her son, who has autism. Privately, she wrestled with his diagnosis, feeling alone as she watched everyone else on social media post photos of their beautiful lives.
“I fell for the pressure of having an ‘Insta Perfect’ life and posting adorable photos of my child smiling happily and looking at the camera,” she wrote on Facebook, saying she “prayed for a normal day, a normal life.”
Her life with Levi, 8, wasn’t “Insta-perfect.” It was actually the opposite, because even though Bishop is a professional photographer, she couldn’t get a good photo of her son. He didn’t like eye contact, and certainly not with a camera. Smiling on command was out of the question.
Then one day a few weeks ago, she came up with an idea. Levi liked costumes, and he loved dinosaurs. Here, she told him, put on this T. rex costume, and I’ll take your picture with your cousin. They went to a field near their home about 50 miles outside Atlanta and ran around and goofed for a while as she took photos. Everyone had an awesome time.
You couldn’t see Levi’s face, but the pictures showed his personality. This was her beautiful life to show to the world, Bishop realized. This was a small pleasure of parenthood to help balance the hard work and stress.
She wasn’t ready, though, for what happened when she posted pictures on Reddit and Facebook of Levi as a T. rex, chasing his 5-year-old cousin, Lola Curiel.
In just a few days, said Bishop, 26, the photos were viewed nearly 1 million times on her Roaming Magnolias Photography Facebook page and blog, and have reached more than 1.4 million interactions on social media.
Some people criticized her for emphasizing Levi’s autism in her posts, but for the most part, the response was overwhelmingly supportive, with many parents sharing stories of their own autistic children.
She replied to supportive comments on Reddit, saying: “Thank you! This is exactly why I mentioned it. Because other spectrum parents can truly appreciate the struggle and what these photos mean for us.”
Bishop said her son’s smile is hidden behind the T. rex suit, “but I know it’s there.”
That’s why she posted the pictures.
As a single mom, Bishop said there was a time she felt almost defeated. When Levi was 6 months old, she bundled him up and left his father in the middle of the night, saying it was an unhealthy relationship. She became homeless, shuttling between friends' homes, shelters and her car for eight months.
“I wasn’t prepared for life," she said. "It was an extremely hard time, with struggle after struggle. But working odd jobs, I got through.”
Once she'd saved enough to get into a one-bedroom apartment, Bishop worked as a 911 dispatcher, then a judicial courts assistant for the state of Georgia, before deciding three years ago to turn her favorite hobby into a livelihood.
She needed a profession with a flexible schedule to help Levi, who had developed behavioral problems and was diagnosed with autism at age 5. He’s now in third grade and excels in a special-needs classroom.
She photographed other families all the time, but she could never get a good photo of her sweet boy. As a photographer, “it broke my heart,” Bishop said. “If I took 5,000 photos, I might be lucky to get 10 good ones.”
Levi resisted smiling and would become agitated if a photo session went on for more than a few minutes, she said. “He had a hard time showing emotion on command,” Bishop said.
She coped by starting a “This Life With Levi” blog, admitting that she once resented his diagnosis and was envious of other people whose lives looked effortless and happy.
If she ever did post a photo of her son, it was after extraordinary work.
“It took coaxing, bribery, dancing like a fool and a whole lot of bathroom jokes,” she wrote on Facebook. “It was exhausting."
In mid-September, after the new school year started, Bishop was recovering from surgery to repair a herniated disc in her spine, and Levi wasn’t responding well to her needing some down time.
"I was an emotional wreck,” she said, “and I reached out to several agencies, looking for answers. I actually wondered if there was someone else out there who could really give Levi what he needed."
Then her son sat next to her and hugged her as she wept, said Bishop, telling her that she was a good person and a good mother. In her blog that day, she wrote that she had put so much energy into resenting Levi’s diagnosis “that I never stopped to just love the brilliant, hilarious little human that was in front of me.”
She decided to celebrate her child’s uniqueness in the only way she knew how: through her camera lens. She knew he loved dinosaurs, and she’d recently seen some hilarious videos of people in T. rex costumes. She went online and ordered one for Levi.
“As soon as he saw it, he couldn't stop smiling,” she said.
During a spectacular sunset about two weeks ago, Bishop took Levi and Lola to a park that had a field of tall grass. She helped her son into his T. rex costume. For 20 minutes, Levi roared and chased after Lola, as she laughed and squealed. For the first time, Bishop said, he wasn’t bothered when she aimed her camera at him and shot frame after frame.
“It was the very first time that I got genuine laughter and smiles from him in my photographs,” she said.
Levi, who has always enjoyed dressing up as everything including a police officer and circus ringmaster, agreed that his mom has finally found a photography method he can deal with.
“I like dinosaurs because they look cool, and I liked wearing the T. rex suit because I didn’t have to worry about what to do with my face,” he said in an interview with The Washington Post.
Since the dinosaur shoot, he and Lola have been photographed as “Ghostbusters” characters, and they have plans to don superhero costumes or perhaps suit up as a princess and knight.
“Levi is much more comfortable in front of the camera now,” Bishop said. “And sometimes, he even takes his mask off a few times. He wants to see the pictures on the computer when we’re finished and is more curious about how it all works and what I do.”
Most important, though, they have a new closeness.
"We’ve found something to bond with,” she said.