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The last five years for Shannon Collins, a wedding photographer who identifies as nonbinary, have been filled with survival and self-discoveries, all while Mx. Collins, captured celebrants’ most intimate and revealing moments.

In October 2019, Mx. Collins, now 39, had craniotomy surgery to remove a malignant lesion. In 2020, as the world shut down because of the coronavirus pandemic, Mx. Collins realized they were queer. A year later they added nonbinary to their identity. Then in early 2022, they were diagnosed with autism.

Mx. Collins, who lives in Abington, Pa., with their spouse, Peter Schuster, a software engineer at the outdoor sporting company REI, and their two children, Adelaide, 9, and Cameron, 5, said that these monumental life changes “reframed my entire existence and made me feel less broken.”

“These major transitions were life-affirming and healing, and reminded me to celebrate myself and those around me,” said Mx. Collins, who identifies as disabled because of their autism diagnosis and the effects of their surgery. “The surgery restricted the mobility of my left hand, and I now get headaches and fogginess from cold and wet weather. I also experience pulsations and buzzing in my ear.”

As for their autism, “I know a lot of people don’t consider that a disability, but I do,” they said. “I’m sound sensitive and miss cues from my body, like hunger or thirst. Making eye contact is hard, and I’m constantly checking my body language because I have to restrict the impulse to sway, flap and or jump.”

Finding a place and a voice in the wedding industry can be difficult. For people with disabilities, doing so can be even harder. Fewer are as vocal and transparent as Mx. Collins, who has made their specific needs work in their favor while creating a place, and space, for themselves and others within the industry.

Mx. Collins has learned to slow down, listen to their body, be aware of their emotional sensitivities, self-regulate their environment and be specific about whom they choose to work with. “I’m seeking out clients that are also neurodivergent, disabled and autistic so I don’t need to mask or hide my disabilities,” they said. In doing so, they are also trying to change the way the wedding industry portrays and sees disabled people.

Mx. Collins, who photographs 15 to 20 weddings a year, believes that part of the lack of representation “stems from an expectation of perfection when it comes to wedding days.”

“If you show any sign of weakness, you’re cast aside as too much of a risk,” they said. “Especially on your wedding day, when there’s so much pressure on it being just right. Why would they hire me when they could just hire somebody who’s nondisabled?”

Mx. Collins opened up about what they’ve learned about themselves and how that knowledge influences and enhances their work. This interview was edited for length and clarity.

How did you start your career in the wedding industry?

After college I was the editor in chief for a local paper in Philadelphia that no longer exists, and then I was a content manager at Generocity, a local, social impact media outlet, also in Philadelphia. From 2007 to 2008, weddings became a special interest of mine when I was a blogger for a popular wedding website, Weddingbee. Photography has always been a passion. I started photographing weddings as a side job in 2009 by reaching out to local engaged couples on the blog. I built my portfolio, invested in gear, increased my rates and pursued wedding photography full-time in 2013.

Who is your typical client?

I’ve marketed myself as a queer, awkward, anxious photographer who hopefully makes others feel more comfortable in front of the lens, so I tend to organically attract those same people. Most find me on TikTok, Instagram or my website. I also work with nondisabled clients who approach me because they are excited to work alongside a vendor who aligns with their values. For me, that means advocating for safer, more inclusive, more diverse and more accessible industry standards.

How did you become so transparent?

It took time to see my disabilities and queerness as valid. Saying I’m autistic or disabled highlights a part of my identity, hopefully reducing the stigma. I want people to see me as a full person, including my disabilities. Having a space to process publicly allowed me to connect with a community of vendors and clients and feel less alone in our shared experiences. That tends to make for a more accessible wedding day.

Do you think there is reluctance around hiring a disabled person?

One in four people are disabled. Being disabled doesn’t make you bad at your job. Ableism within the wedding industry makes it so we don’t get a chance to prove that. The industry and people tend to view disabled people as not trendy or attractive. By not working with us, people are missing out on authenticity.

How do your disabilities influence the way you work?

I wear earplugs to reduce the noise level. I’ve learned to take breaks, to ask for what I need, to not take calls at night and communicate transparently upfront so I don’t have to work with people who are not going to be a good fit. I used to mask or camouflage my disabilities at weddings, but because I work with so many autistic and neurodiverse people, I feel free to be myself, and I feel understood by the people I’m photographing, who in turn feel understood by me. It creates a more authentic relationship and unmasks all of us so that I get photos other photographers wouldn’t be able to get otherwise.

What makes your photography style special?

Autistic people tend to be bottom-up thinkers, meaning we often see details before the big picture. I observe and try to find a way to creatively approach people. I also like to capture emotionally charged moments, along with smiles, as that’s a truer experience of the day.

My photos tend to be more intimate and joyful because I do most weddings solo, and because I build rapport beforehand so we are not strangers that day. I’m good at getting people to be themselves.

Despite there being a stigma around people with autism not being able to read social cues, one of my strengths is reading people and noticing things like when they need a break. I’m often considering the sensory experience of photography, being thoughtful about how much flash I’m using and how that might affect people. My attention to detail strengthens my work because helping marriers know what to expect, regarding things like timelines or group photos, can reduce a lot of stress.

How can the wedding industry be more inclusive?

The wedding industry often values trends, like stunning floral-filled staircases, over the accessibility of actually getting up the stairs. Many venues greet wheelchair users with stairs or gravel paths, telling them they can be carried in if they want to attend. The obstacle in the wedding industry isn’t our disabilities but the mind-set of the industry itself. The wedding industry needs to prioritize accessibility. We need to hold venues accountable to be physically accessible and A.D.A.-compliant (Americans With Disabilities Act) for everyone and to work with vendors whose values align with disability justice.

What can couples do to make their weddings more inclusive?

If a wedding is being hosted at a venue, is there information included on their website and social media regarding accessibility details? Is the venue you’re having your event in A.D.A. compliant? Consider hiring an accessibility specialist, someone who examines your wedding and determines where you have gaps that you might not realize. Create a space on your website or on your invitations for guests to answer the question, what they need — like hiring an A.S.L. interpreter if a guest is deaf — because that varies so greatly between individuals. And provide earplugs for guests who are sound sensitive.

What are some of the lessons you’ve learned since becoming a wedding photographer?

That I’m strong and even funny, to some. That clients actually want to work with me when I drop the mask, which is both shocking and healing. I’ve learned to make others feel cared for in an industry that so often prioritizes the wrong things.



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