Photography by Yuvie Styles
Photographer and filmmaker Katie Norris’ life changed 10 years ago when she received a phone call from a mother who was weeping over her son’s recent brain tumor diagnosis.
“Someone told me you could help me,” the mom said to Norris on the phone. “I couldn’t breathe thinking about what she must have been going through having to speak those words,” Norris says.
This was the moment Norris knew she needed to use her passion for photography and filmmaking to help those enduring hardship.
“I grabbed the first filmmaker I knew and we went in there and captured this story. They lost their son a few weeks later. We were able to capture that last smile on their son’s (face),” Norris says. “We all hope to find a calling in life. I actually got a phone call that changed my life.”
After telling this story, some of Norris’ friends and family asked her how long she planned on continuing this work.
“Until I get another phone call,” Norris says. “We’ll be doing this and keep serving families.”
The Lake Highlands native started the nonprofit Fotolanthropy in 2011 to celebrate stories of hope and support those overcoming insurmountable odds through photography, feature films and documentaries. Fotolanthropy served many Lake Highlands families in its beginnings.
Norris took Fotolanthropy to the next level with the nonprofit’s first feature film about a quadruple amputee soldier named Travis Mills. Initially, the visit with Mills was supposed to be a portrait session and short f ilm.
“I’m sitting across this man with no arms and legs. Here’s this guy that’s given everything for us,” Norris says. “The thought just came to my mind: ‘What are my arms and legs? What am I giving to him?’ I talked about it with our director, and he had the idea to make a feature film.”
Fotolanthropy fundraised and produced what would become Travis: A Soldier’s Story. Norris’ vision was to premiere the film in Dallas and get Mills a standing ovation. Over 500 people, including police officers, service men and women and Gold Star families attended the Angelika Film Center premiere to celebrate Mills.
“There was not a dry eye in the place,” Norris says.
The phone started ringing off the hook the next day, with many wanting permission to show the film. Since then, Fotolanthropy has completed three feature films.
Fotolanthropy’s most recent one, 7 Yards, made its Netflix debut earlier this year. The film tells the story of Chris Norton, a man who suffered a debilitating spinal cord injury that left him unlikely to ever move again. After years of physical therapy and training, Norton successfully walked across his college graduation stage and down the wedding aisle with his wife, Emily.
“I know that anyone that watches it will walk away feeling connected to one of the characters and will walk away inspired and renewed,” Norris says.
Fotolanthropy films and documentaries have featured stories about a range of topics including a special needs child, a family’s home lost in a fire and a father with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS. Nominations for stories typically are submitted on the Fotolanthropy website.
The nonprofit celebrates nominated families with a portrait session and a short film of their story. Over the last decade, Fotolanthropy has made over 20 short films. At the end, Norris often realizes the impact these families’ stories have made on her.
“It feels so good to give to them, but what you don’ t realize i s when you look back, you add people to your family,” she says.
The Lake Highlands community has served as a great support in fulfilling Norris’ mission with Fotolanthropy. Her passions for photography originated in media classes at Lake Highlands High School.
“Parents that watched and babysat me when I was little are now cheering us on in what we’re doing with our nonprofit work and cheering us on with our kids,” Norris says. “If Lake Highlands could be a megaphone for this mission and for 7 Yards to push this into the world, we would be so grateful for that. We just want to spread this story of hope everywhere.”