Hannah Cooper is no stranger to the camera. For the past four years she has created photographs that have been sold across north Georgia and even to celebrities.
The shy senior in Ashley Elliott’s special education class at Dawson County High School began participating in ConnectAbility’s “A Thousand Words” photography project in 2015.
It began as a project to give people with disabilities a voice through the visual art of photography.
“Hannah talks, so even though she is in the Special Ed community, there’s some of our photographers that have no voice and so that is how this got started for them,” said her mother, Angela. “I just think it’s a fantastic way for her to be a part of the community.”
Through the project, Hannah has been able to work hands-on with local photographers, traveling to parks, zoos and other scenic locations to capture photographs that encapsulate the project’s yearly theme.
Each year her work is featured at the annual ConnectAbility Art Auction and Celebration Gala, with some of her pieces selling for as much as $500 to raise money for the nonprofit.
Hannah’s work currently hangs on the walls of the Gainesville and Hiawassee offices of special needs and elderly attorney Kevin Tharpe. She even sold a piece to actress Melissa Peterman, most widely known for her role of Barbara Jean on the show “Reba.”
“We are so grateful to have her as part of the “A Thousand Words” photography project and have seen her photography and storytelling skills grow so much over the years,” ConnectAbility founder Jacqueline Daniel said.
This year Hannah wanted to try something new. With the help of her photography mentor Michele DeBlois and her mother, the trio decided to put their unique spin on the 2018 theme “Stories: Seen and Heard.”
By using miniature models, Hannah wanted to convey her story of “feeling small in a big world.”
“Sometimes having a child with a disability can be very overwhelming. As a parent you feel like your child is just a very small part of a great, big world out there,” Angela said. “Having your child be able to express her thoughts and feelings through photography has been a blessing to us.”
To convey her feelings through photography, Hannah and DeBlois worked together to stage little miniatures in the places Hannah loves the most.
The duo went to Lake Lanier and set up miniature chairs and wine glasses to invoke the feeling of peace she feels sitting by the lake.
“They were hilarious this time at the lake. They got so dirty trying to get down and get those shots,” Angela said, smiling. “They got down and dirty this year; they really did.”
Hannah said that’s the hardest part about her photography: getting the right angle for the shot which often includes “laying on the grass, getting on the ground and turning my camera sideways and getting the best shot.”
“I was in my work clothes,” Hannah said. “I didn’t want to get dirty.”
Hannah and DeBlois also went to Forrest Hills Mountain Resort to photograph the large horses and to set up miniatures in the colorful flower garden where a friendly cat photobombed the session.
“That cat kept coming toward me and wanted me to pet it and he wouldn’t leave me alone,” Hannah said, giggling.
Cats are Hannah’s favorite animals and she loves being able to take pictures of them while she’s out on her photography expeditions, making wonderful memories captured forever in her photographs.
No matter the setting, DeBlois says it’s always a pleasure working with Hannah. She has been Hannah’s mentor for two years and enjoys helping Hannah develop her skills.
“Some of her images always catch me by surprise with the interesting way she frames things in her mind and through the lens,” DeBlois said. “I believe photography is a great way to express yourself without ever saying a word.”
Unfortunately for Hannah, who tells many stories in the hundreds of photos she takes, not all of them make the cut. Every year she has to choose her best three photographs to be put on display and auctioned off at the annual gala.
It’s often a difficult task.
“I like all of them,” she said. “I can’t choose.”
It’s not any easier for her mother to choose either.
Because the gala is the biggest fundraiser for ConnectAbility, the Coopers sit down and choose the photographs they think will sell the best, often choosing Hannah’s photos of scenic landscapes and wildlife.
“Hannah has a good eye for photography and with her awesome mentor Michele, they were able to capture some of the love she has to share with everyone and share the love of her favorite things,” Angela said.
Angela found out about ConnectAbility’s monthly respite nights when Hannah was 3 years old, and was thankful that the nonprofit organization offered care and a safe place for her daughter and other children and adults with disabilities.
“We started way back then because when you have a child with disabilities, there are not a lot of places that include them,” Angela said.
ConnectAbility, a nonprofit based out of Dahlonega, aims to empower people of all abilities and bridge communities together so that people like the Coopers feel included and not so small in a big world.
Hannah's photographs will be on display at the gala next Saturday.
The 7th annual Art Auction and Celebration Gala is at 6 p.m. Feb. 23 at R-Ranch in the Mountains in Dahlonega. Tickets are $60 per guest. For more information or to purchase tickets visit www.connectabilityinc.org.