The image of a young Australian model caught the eye of up-and-coming photographer, Erica Nichols ’09 ’11, as she scrolled through her Facebook feed. Nichols, who had been searching for models to potentially photograph for her portfolio, felt captivated by 18 year old Madeline Stuart, who despite having Down syndrome, was quickly gaining international attention. She did not realize it at the time, but that chance discovery would soon lead to a lifetime opportunity for Nichols.
“I read about her and was instantly inspired. I left a comment on her Facebook photo and said ‘Hey Madeline, if you are ever in Los Angeles, I would love to do a shoot with you,’” recalls Nichols. Almost immediately she was contacted by Madeline’s mother, her manager at the time, and learned that she would be coming to Los Angeles from Australia in late July to compete in the Special Olympics World Games as a dancer.
It was the perfect situation, not only because of the extraordinary subject she would be photographing, but also because it was purely a passion project coming to fruition in a beautifully unexpected way.
“I loved her message about diversity and breaking down barriers of all types and reaching people to help them realize their abilities,” Nichols said. “I took well over 1,500 shots of her because she was so much fun to work with. I get a little emotional just thinking about it because I don’t think I will ever get the chance to work with a model like her again.
After the 12 hour shoot, an exhausted Nichols went straight to work editing the images — eager to see how they came out. They were more than what she expected. After sharing them with Stuart and her mother, they too were blown away. That is when the idea of sending the images off to Cosmopolitan Magazine came up. It was a shot in the dark, but worth a try.
Then it happened. The next day, Cosmopolitan.com featured her photos in an online article that quickly spread through social media. “I was at work when the story came out and went into complete shock. It was hard not to scream while at my desk,” Nichols said.
Nichols’ photos went viral overnight, appearing on the Today Show, People Magazine, New York Daily News, and Huffington Post among several other national and international outlets. In addition to receiving several product endorsement offers, Stuart had the opportunity to hit the catwalk during New York Fashion Week in September.
“To be a part of making someone’s dreams come true is a dream come true for me,” said Nichols. As someone who does photography on the side, Nichols has come a long way in her endeavors in a short amount of time.
It was only a year earlier that Nichols received a camera from her husband as a gift to supplement her side blogging project, 30mileseast.com. An Inland Empire native, Nichols aimed to highlight the region and all of its glory by showcasing local music and art to a larger audience. She taught herself how to use her camera, starting out by photographing rock bands and little by little transitioning into fine art photography.
“The best thing about being in freelance is the freedom that comes with it. I really hope it stays that way,” she said. Nichols, who received both a bachelor’s degree in behavior science and a master’s degree in education from University of La Verne, is the assistant director of academic planning and administration at Claremont McKenna College. While she has been successful in her career in higher education, her passion for the arts is what fuels her and she credits her husband, Ryan Nichols ’10, ’12, for helping her realize her full potential.
“It took me a long time to realize that I could do something like this — be a working professional and still pursue another part of my being. My husband has been my inspiration behind all this,” Nichols said.
“It has been exciting to watch Erica pursue her passion in photography and really showcase her creativity. As her husband and fellow Leo, I am so proud to see her utilizing her talent to capture the beauty of such an extraordinary individual (Madeline Stuart). I look forward to what the future has in store for my lovely wife as she continues to broaden her horizons,” Ryan said.
Since her photos of Madeline Stuart went viral, Nichols has been increasingly busy with photography, fielding requests for photo shoots on weekends. She is realizing her dream and wants to help others do the same. “My goal is to take the values I learned at La Verne and somehow afford people the opportunity to reach their own dreams. That would be the biggest accomplishment for me, but for now I’m just going to keep shooting.”