Sofie rests in a clawfoot tub outside on her family farm in Eilenstedt, Germany. A white horse, painted with dappled light, leans intimately close, gilding this unassuming moment with a hint of magic. “What I saw moved me to take the picture,” says Snezhana von Büdingen, the Russian-born photographer who has been documenting Sofie since 2017. “At that moment I saw purity and life in harmony with nature; what Sofie describes so well.”

Sofie with white horse © Snezhana von Büdingen

In the ongoing series, Meeting Sofie, von Büdingen lifts a veil to reveal the profoundly beautiful and poetic essence of a young woman with Down syndrome. The two met just after Sofie completed school at the age of 18, naturally allowing some of the work to communicate as a coming-of-age story. At times Sofie appears youthfully innocent as if plucked from the pages of a fairytale; yet we also see her in a bold stance, staring directly into the camera while unapologetically inhaling a cigarette.

Sofie with cigarette © Snezhana von Büdingen

Most of her days are spent on an expansive estate that provides a sumptuous patina of color, texture and artistic relics passed down through her family line of famous antiques dealers. At times Sofie appears to be immersed within her own internal world, whether alone or sitting at the fringes of a casual hangout with her brother and friends. Even while caressing a boyfriend’s hand wrapped around her shoulder as they lay in a field of poppies, Sofie’s expression seems to draw the fleeting moment in towards herself as von Büdingen selects this as one to preserve.

Sofie in the poppyfield with boyfriend Andy © Snezhana von Büdingen

“Finding a partner is everything for Sofie.” Von Büdingen was there at that turning point to document her first foray into love. Dating plays an important role for social and cognitive performance as people grow into adulthood, and this is equally true for people with Down syndrome. Researcher Dr. Roy Brown wrote about society’s tendency to coddle rather than providing the same access to stimulation and exploration that all humans expect and deserve. Themes such as friendship, clothing and dating are of equal importance, regardless of ability. The only thing that changes is the opportunity to grasp those goals.

It’s Sofie’s mother, Barbara, who helps facilitate such opportunities. A portrait of the two pressed together—as they wear matching white slips and hair wrapped with braids—highlights the deep bond between mother and daughter.

Sofie with Barbara © Snezhana von Büdingen

While chatting with von Büdingen about her recent Critic’s Choice selection, she was on a train to see Sofie and meet a new romantic hopeful. Her mother invited the young man to visit their home after he and Sofie exchanged several calls and messages. Von Büdingen remembers the time when Sofie was in “that awkward yet beautiful and thrilling age of transition from a girl to a woman, when every feeling is extremely intense and love seems to be the main purpose of life.”

She hopes to photograph Sofie throughout the rest of her life and is excited to see what lies ahead. “Maybe it’s new love.”

Editor’s note: This powerful project was discovered through our LensCulture Critics’ Choice Awards 2020. Check out the rest of the inspiring winners!