Doug Menuez on collaborating with art director John Doyle for a pro bono project to help kids with severe stuttering problems

A former photojournalist who has seen more than his share of suffering around the world, Doug Menuez has made a habit of giving back whenever he has the chance. Sometimes it’s in the form of a book to raise money for a charity, and other times it’s by taking on a pro bono project.

Most recently, Doug photographed portraits of kids who are working to overcome severe stuttering problems with the help of a nonprofit organization called Our Time, which is being rebranded as SAY: The Stuttering Association for the Young. Below, he talks about working with art director John Doyle on the rebranding project, which makes its debut this spring, the personal reasons that inspired him to get involved, and what it was like photographing 20 kids in one day…

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Photo by Doug Menuez.

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Photo by Doug Menuez.

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My agent, Bill Stockland, got a call from the legendary art director John Doyle asking for help with a special project he was working on for a nonprofit that is dedicated to helping kids who stutter. John was rebranding the nonprofit, then called Our Time, and needed portraits of the actual kids who participated in the program. He needed a lot of portraits, and they had to be great, of course, and done pro bono. The new name would be SAY—bold and to the point.

I have a very close friend who built a career as a top photojournalist despite a severe stuttering problem. I learned a lot about the challenges people who suffer from this disability go through and was so impressed by how he overcame his problem to succeed. I also am good friends with the former CEO of Apple, John Sculley, who told me he grew up fighting this same problem and overcame it to become an excellent public speaker. You can catch John these days on TV commenting articulately on everything from future tech to the economy. These friends are the reason I immediately said count me in.

Shooting kids is always a tough job. Even as a parent and someone who has always shot kids, I know from experience you can’t push things or try to control things too much. You have to be patient and open to the kid’s frame of mind, and try to connect. Essentially, you are a passenger on their train.

In this case, we were talking about young kids but also teens. Which raises a whole host of other issues around self-esteem, identity, and general discomfort with self-image that are just part of the package of growing up. Add in a disability like stuttering, and I knew it might be tough to deliver the portraits I envisioned.

I wanted to connect emotionally with the kids and try to show their sense of pride and accomplishment for what they were overcoming. It was an exciting opportunity. John and I talked at first about photographing to seven or eight kids, then maybe 12 or more. I thought on the outside we could get to 15.

Then he asked if I could shoot 20 kids—in one day. Hey, I’m game for anything. But to connect with these kids and shoot a range of images in the time allotted with a limited crew and budget (the crew was paid) was a daunting thought, to put it mildly.

Then came the shoot day: I was in heaven. Big surprise: The kids came in and rocked the house. They burst into dance, they sang, they talked and talked. We had a blast! It was such a gift to meet them and be part of their world. And we got the 20 kids done, barely, as our studio time ran out. It seems the Our Time/Say program is working wonders with these bright kids…

I just got a lovely note from John thanking us and saying how happy everyone was with the pictures. It’s a project I’m extremely proud to have been part of.

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Photo by Doug Menuez..

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Photo by Doug Menuez.

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Photo by Doug Menuez.

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Photo by Doug Menuez.

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Photo by Doug Menuez.

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Photo by Doug Menuez.

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Photo by Doug Menuez.

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