His classmates called him “a monster” and “a freak.”
Eight-year-old Jackson Bezzant has Treacher Collins syndrome, a rare facial condition that makes him look different than other kids. The teasing got so intense, Jackson asked his parents for a mask.
Instead, they took him to photographer Josh Rossi, who helped him find his true identity – as a superhero.
Jackson donned a Captain America uniform and struck a bold pose. His eyes blazed with defiance, ready to battle his ultimate villain – bullying.
Bezzant is one of 15 children Rossi photographed for his latest pictorial series, inspired by the new Avengers film, “Infinity War.” The children came from around the country to a studio in Utah for photo sessions.
Each young hero has a unique story. But they share a single, powerful message: Being different is cool.
When goodwill meets photography
Rossi became known for transforming six disabled and seriously ill children into superheroes in his “Justice League” project. That photo spread attracted 100 million online views.
“After I did the ‘Justice League’ series, I realized that those kids were being bullied as well,” he tells CNN. “I didn’t know how brutal it can be.”
Rossi started his next superhero project after coming across a heartbreaking video posted by Dan Bezzant, Jackson’s dad. The desperate dad’s public plea to his son’s bullies struck a chord with Rossi, himself a father of two.
“I felt like his dad was calling out to me,” he recalls. He had to respond.
“I messaged him and told him I was doing a bullying project – I made it all up,” he laughs.
It wasn’t until Rossi saw the trailer of the upcoming Avengers film that he says everything “clicked.” He got a costume designer, Julie Whiteley to create the child-sized wardrobe.
Through social media and communications with parents from his earlier project, Rossi found his new crew of superheroes, all of whom had been severely bullied.
“These kids are meant to do this,” Rossi says. “They believed in the project. They believed their voice would be heard.”
There is 10-year-old Morisi Elakano, a refugee from Tanzania who now lives in Utah. Morisi’s accent prompted ridicule from his peers. But in front of Rossi’s lens, dressed as Black Panther, the boy who’d been teased for his accent became a global force of nature.
Twelve-year-old Jackson Sommers appears in the photo series as Dr. Strange. He was born with severe brain damage, causing difficulties with movement and speech. The boy’s mother says he’s been spat upon and called names. But the photo series transformed her child.
“When he put on his costume and he saw himself in the mirror for the first time, (he) stood up straight, ” Jackson’s mother explains. “You could tell he was confident.”
“I felt like I didn’t have a disability anymore,” the boy told CNN. “I felt like I had the ability to fight back.”
Jackson has advice for other kids facing bullies: “You are not alone. If bullies say you can’t do stuff, prove them wrong. Keep on being strong.”
Creating a culture of change
Rossi hopes his series will empower others to believe their differences are a good thing.
“The Avengers have different powers and are unique in their own way,” the photographer says. “They come together to fight against the big bully, Thanos.”
His mission is simple: “As we accept people’s differences, then it will become the norm.”
Rossi hopes to display the Avenger images at a gallery. For now, they can be found online – and in the emboldened minds of 15 mild-mannered kids with the hearts of superheroes.