Barrington-area portrait photographer Thomas Balsamo has been telling personal stories with his camera for 35 years.
Over the past decade he's used his well-honed skills and artistic philosophy to bring greater awareness of the young personalities behind generic labels like autism and Down syndrome.
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"My whole idea is to create work that gives the viewer an emotional response," Balsamo said. "It's all about feelings really. The core value of my work is the eyes are the windows to the soul."
He's particularly proud of the work he's done with autistic children and where it's taken him in his life and career.
"One of the most important things is showing that there's an intelligent person inside, locked in a body that cannot communicate," Balsamo said.
Though he's been using this approach to create precious family heirlooms for decades, his work in the 21st century has reached much bigger stages.
His collaboration with writer Sharon Rosenbloom on the book "Souls: Beneath and Beyond Autism" received The Autism Society of America's Literary Work of the Year award for 2003.
Since then, his work has been displayed in Toys 'R' Us and Babies 'R' Us stores across the nation, raising
$6.5 million for Autism Speaks through the company's Faces of Autism campaign.
Toys 'R' Us Executive Creative Director Mary Hogarth said she first became aware of Balsamo when another photographer gave her his book as a gift.
"I thought the images were really beautiful," she said.
Hogarth has adult twins with autism and said she knows the difficulty typically short attention spans can cause in getting good portraits.
"He's really talented," she said of Balsamo. "Photographers and artists are a dime a dozen, but really good ones take the time to know their subjects. Thomas has this wonderful, patient way. He doesn't miss those moments that easily could be missed."
More recently Balsamo has worked with Hoffman Estates-based GiGi's Playhouse, which assists families of children with Down syndrome. He produced the agency's 2013 calendar and a short film called "A Child With Down Syndrome Changes a Family Forever."
GiGi's Playhouse founder Nancy Gianni said Balsamo's book and a Barrington-area family's recommendation led to their collaboration on the "I Have A Voice" and, more recently, the "One Million Voices" photo exhibits that have toured the country.
"It completely exceeded what I expected it to be," Gianni said of Balsamo's contribution. "Really what it was an international campaign of acceptance. When you look at his photos, he allows you to see past the diagnosis. He captures the person, the essence."
Balsamo says his approach to working with special-needs children is really no different from working with anyone else. It's an approach designed to show the person inside, which with special-needs children can break stereotypes.
One stereotype, which Balsamo's work overcomes by having many portraits displayed together, is the mistaken notion that all children with Down syndrome look alike.
Gayle and Skip Gianopulos of Barrington Hills have had Balsamo shoot their family portraits, and their young daughters Jessica and Cassidy have been featured in his work for GiGi's Playhouse.
"We just adore what he does," Gayle Gianopulos said. "Philanthropically, he's just got a heart. He's just got a passion. I think it's just showcasing the beauty of our kids and that they're worthy of being photographed."
She added that his skill in avoiding cliché informs all of his work, not just his photos for special-needs causes.
"He really tries to get those images where it's not about the distraction of the smile but the eyes of the children."
Balsamo's love affair with photography began when he got a camera for his 10th birthday. He soon learned how to tell stories with images and began mowing lawns to earn money for his own darkroom.
In 1984, he came across a book featuring the work of photographer Yousuf Karsh, who made world-famous portraits offering new insights into well-known figures such as Winston Churchill, Ernest Hemingway and Humphrey Bogart. Balsamo found his own work unsatisfactory when compared to Karsh's and began building his approach to his art all over again.
"This book pretty much changed my life," he said of Karsh's publication. "I started to love my work and haven't changed a thing since.
"My desire is to create my clients' most valuable possessions," Balsamo said. "I don't want to do 'cute' work. I want to do 'wow' work."
Balsamo presents many seminars to aspiring photographers, trying to share his passion for making art. He firmly believes the world would be a much better place if everyone could learn to find and use their gifts, whatever they are.
"A lot of people are just about what happens within their little scope and not reaching beyond that," he said.