When I first visited Sofie for three days in October, 2017, I just wanted to make one portrait together with her mother. But after I met her, and I got into the world at her family’s farm in Eilenstedt, Germany, it became clear that I wanted to make a series about her, her family and living with Down syndrome.
I have a feeling that in society people have a slightly guarded attitude towards people with Down syndrome. I had done a project about mothers of children with the condition before — that was the cause of my first visit, actually — and it erased the clichés from my head: I knew how every human experiencing life this way is as unique as anyone else. Yet we rarely see them that way. So I photographed Sofie like anyone else. I wanted to bring her personality closer to the viewer — to show that she can have the same feelings, the same longing for love and security, as each of us do.
Sofie, like unfortunately many people with Down syndrome, can’t speak well. But she and I don’t care much about it when we take pictures and spend time together. We’ve come to understand one another.
One of my favorite images is “Sofie with cigarette.” It was a cold and windy morning, and we were walking through the garden. Suddenly, Sofie took a cigarette, stood proudly in front of me, and said to me, “mach Foto” — Take a photo. In this moment, she was self-confident, strong and loving life. This was the human being hiding behind the shy Sofie, showing the strong woman she wants to be. I know it’s her favorite photo, too.
But every picture shows a different side of her. Sometimes, she is a child. Sometimes, she is a woman, longing for love. Sometimes she breaks from everything and is in her own world. She is a shy person, but at other times, she is very confident.
I hope these pictures are relatable. In many situations, Sofie is just like any other young woman — experiencing first loves and sorrows at or before age 19. But I also hope they inspire people to reflect on Sofie’s unique way of interacting with the world.
I have now visited Sofie about eight times, including as recently as this February. Every time, I learn something more. She feels the same things as we do, but, I find, sometimes more intensely. I’ve seen her happy as well as terribly sad. The feelings of the people she is close to and loves are important to her, as is how they relate to her. But she also finds joy in simple things and is free from social pressure. She doesn’t seem to think at all about what others think of her. She is able to separate herself from the day-to-day. In that way, I believe she’s freer than we are.
Snezhana von Büdingen is a photographer based in Cologne, Germany.