Sam Tokita’s Photography: What Lies Beneath the Surface of Disabled Bodies

Words and images by Sam Tokita
Kiara Marshall (left) and the author.
Photo credit Amy Levanduski.

When Getty Images chose Sam Tokita as one of three winners in a nationwide grant program for photographers with disabilities, she was justifiably stoked. But the real validation came when she posted the news on Instagram.

“I received so many comments from people saying it was well deserved,” says Tokita, a congenital below-knee amputee. “I don’t think it really hit me that people appreciate my imagery until that happened. I could have received no money and just gotten that support from the community, and that’s everything I needed.”

Getty’s grant program celebrates images that challenge stereotypes and reshape perceptions of disability. Tokita generously agreed to let Amplitude share some photos from her winning application.

Here they are, accompanied by her descriptions. To see more of Tokita’s images, check her out on Instagram at @bionickick.

I started this project as a way to meet people I was interested in knowing. I chose disabled subjects because I’m disabled, so I felt connected with them because of what we share—and because disabled bodies are so beautiful.

I don’t necessarily think about disability when I take photos. The intent was to personally connect. I feel close to people when I photograph them. I think they show parts of themselves that you don’t get to see on the surface. 

I want people to perceive the many facets of a disabled body—not just the strength and beauty, but also the layers beneath. We are strong because we have been broken. We are empathetic because we know what it’s like to be dismissed. I don’t want to only showcase smiles, because I feel like those images are meant to be palatable for nondisabled people. That’s such a limited view of who we are. 

Angel Giuffria
Los Angeles

Angel was the first person I met on my photo project. We went to lunch and tried to shoot around the streets, but it was generally chaotic. We developed a strong friendship, so when I decided to book a studio in July 2023 and invite a few models, Angel was top of mind. I told her to bring something she felt good in, so she carried two large bags containing what an average person would consider an entire wardrobe up the elevators and into the room. There was a clothing rack available, but we’re the kind of artists that dump all of our materials on the floor so we can get a full view of everything we’re working with. It was a huge mess behind the camera, but I love that so much.

Angel skipped the warm-up period and immediately started contorting her body into funky poses. She does a lot of commercial work, so it was fun to get a little weird. I think a lot of what people see in Angel’s work is the quirky, professional side of her, but she’s so multidimensional—her humor is unmatched, she’s tough, she’s sexy. I hope people can see a little of those different sides of her when they see this image.

Cairn Atkinson
Los Angeles

Cairn changed my entire perspective on life. I met her on my first LA trip, the day after Angel and I tried to shoot on the streets. Cairn picked me up from across town, drove me to a cute lunch spot, and poured her soul out to me. It felt like we’d known each other for many lifetimes. Watching Cairn confidently request accommodations when she needs it helped something click for me. As a congenital amputee, I was so afraid of being different or seeming weak, so I accepted that life was about dealing with the pain. I’ve never had a disabled parking placard, I never ask for a seat if there appears to be none available. Cairn doesn’t operate like that. If she needs something, she asks for it, and she told me I should do the same.

I love taking photos in parking garages, so we moseyed around until we found one I liked. It was maybe 1 pm, so the sun was beating down directly overhead, which is kind of a nightmare. I didn’t have a reflector or any other modifiers, so poor Cairn had to tilt her face toward the sun for every shot. I apologized profusely for making her burn her eyeballs, but she did every pose with a smile while saying, “Don’t worry honey, it’s fine!” 

On the flight home, my leg was sore, and I thought about everything Cairn taught me. When I arrived, for the first time in my life, I gave myself permission to request an airport wheelchair to take me from the gate to the curb.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Just before Amplitude went to press, Cairn Atkinson passed away after a long battle with cancer. It’s a painful loss for everyone who knew Cairn or was touched by her spirit. On Instagram, the author of this article wrote: “What an incredible honor to be loved by her. She had so much she wanted to do, and she deserved to have it all. Losing her has ripped me to pieces, and the world is much less beautiful without her. I’d do anything to drink blueberry coffee with her and hear her call me ‘darling’ again. Anything. I have lived with [her] in my heart from the moment we met, and that will never change.” Please consider contributing to the Honoring Cairn Atkinson Fund to help settle her remaining medical expenses.

Kiara Marshall
New York City

I brought my friend Amy along with me to New York during Fashion Week to link up with a few people I wanted to meet. Kiara was one of the first amputee models I’d seen on social media when I started sharing my own journey online. Her work is so majestic, and she’s stunning, so she’d been on my list of people to photograph since day one.

We met at a cute park, and she was dressed effortlessly in a fluffy lavender sweater and green velvet hat. We snapped a few photos by the water, grabbed some tacos, and conversed about love, family, race, and the inaccessibility we saw while getting around the city. Kiara’s heart reminded me of Cairn’s—full of the kindness and empathy I strive for. In the chaos of our travel, Kiara was the calmness that Amy and I didn’t realize we needed.

Credit: Amy Levanduski, assistant

JD Duran

JD and I hype each other up on the Internet. He lives in the Portland area and I used to live in Seattle, but it took us forever to connect. We both travel often, so sometimes he’d be in Seattle but I was in LA, or I’d be in Portland while he was just getting onto his return flight. Last summer I got booked for a shoot in Portland and had a free day when he was actually around, so we finally connected. Since JD is a photographer, too, the plan was for me to photograph him first, set up a timer to capture a few of us together, and then he’d photograph me. We got into it, ate some sandwiches I’d picked up beforehand, and chatted about existing in the sports and marketing worlds as both disabled people and Asian-Americans.

Right as we finished up our duo photos and were getting ready for JD to photograph me, one of the studio owners came in and asked it we were done yet. They had double-booked the time! She was panicking because she couldn’t move her client appointment. She emphasized that we were welcome to come back another day, which didn’t work because I didn’t live in Portland. We got kicked out! It was horribly awkward. JD ended up photographing me outside in the rain. He rocked what he had to work with, but we are definitely planning for a do-over.

Celia Flores
Los Angeles

Celia and I met while modeling on a commercial shoot in 2022. I arrived in shorts and a tank top, and I saw her in a sweatshirt, which boggled my mind considering the temperature was in the mid 90s. I sat next to her, she pulled her sleeve back, and the immediate “Hey, we’re kinda the same” moment happened. We got to talking about modeling, martial arts, and life, then went out for dinner the evening of the shoot to continue the conversation. I didn’t work with her directly on the commercial, so I had no idea what she was like as a model, but she has this radiant, no-BS personality and she’s so incredibly beautiful, so I invited her to the studio when I returned to LA that following July. In complete contrast to Angel, Celia showed up to the studio with one dress. She threw it on, and I proceeded to be so floored by her movement and gaze. Celia is a fiery person in general, but the moment she feels comfortable and ready, she’s a phoenix. I can’t explain it. She just knows how to turn it on. The photos I took of her are some of my favorites from my entire career.

Kanya Sesser
New York City

Kanya lives in LA but happened to be in New York during Fashion Week to model in the Runway of Dreams show. I’d always been intrigued by her because she just does so much—skateboarding, acting, surfing, modeling. There’s always something new on her plate. She’d been staying near Times Square, so we explored it together, weaving through crowds of people. The lights were wonky, tourists flooded the background, and it was getting dark—multiple nightmares for a photo session rolled into one moment. I took about eight photos, praying one would work out, and I got lucky. This one stood out to me the most. Kanya is an athlete, performer, and all-around positive person, and I think this image really captures her mix of strength and kindness.

Credit: Amy Levanduski, assistant

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