The Camera as a Window to the Autistic Soul

Sometime in late 2008, four college students traveled to Sudan with the goal of photographing the situation there. They had no designs on taking the photographs themselves. Rather, they wanted to see Sudan from a child’s perspective. So, they armed five orphans there with cameras, taught them the basics of how to take photographs, and let them loose for a few weeks to capture Sudan as only they could. The often beautiful, eye-opening images spawned an exhibit and further travels to different areas in the world. The resulting project, called 100cameras, would reach children and communities from the Bronx to Cuba.

In a CNN interview, one of those college students was quoted as saying, “If you could give a child a camera, they could tell a reality in a way that a foreigner, or even an adult, could not.” Well, amen to that.

Reading this story made me wonder about other silent, distant, or foreign worlds that could be glimpsed in the same way. Specifically, it made me think about autism. Could a camera provide a way for those with autism to share their perspectives of the world—both literally and figuratively? It turns out, yes. At least it appears so.

One of the gems I stumbled across while thinking about photography and autism is a blog called Renovating Italy. This is where parent Lisa Chiodo, who takes some darn good photographs of her own, answered my question. “When our little boy was three he was diagnosed with autism,” she writes. “Slowly he lost all his speech and his world started to become silent. Giving him a camera was a way into his world. I would watch as he would photograph his favorite toy, then move closer and closer until he was actually touching it with the lens. Multiple images which showed how he arranged his world. How important the tiniest detail is to him.”

Forrest Sargent Autism

Forrest Sargent

But as I’d hoped and suspected, it isn’t just autistic children who can share their perspective in this way. It’s also autistic adults, and they need not be “high-functioning” to do it. Case in point: Forrest Sargent. This Seattle-based photographer was diagnosed with autism two decades ago at the age of two. By the time he was a teen, Sargent was nonverbal and frequently violent. He pretty much lived in a world apart, in more ways than one. (He was institutionalized for a time due to his destructive outbursts.) This was until his intrepid parents finally discovered two ways to connect deeply with him. One of those ways was a controversial approach using a letter-board, something called Rapid Prompting Method, which frankly is beyond my scope of knowledge. The other was a camera. Wow, did he ever reveal his perspective with that camera. He even held an exhibit at an Olympia art gallery. You should read more about Forrest. It’s pretty amazing stuff. Look at the photographs he took. See how he sees the world.

Last, I read today about the In-Focus Project in Montgomery County, Maryland. It’s among the community services offered there for autistic children and adults, started specifically because some had shown an interest in the arts. Here’s what the In-Focus director had to say about it in the Washington Times: “We can see through their eyes what they find interesting. Photography is one of the only vehicles that can capture that…What we’ve found is we learn as much from them as they learn from us.”

In that same article, I read about Matt, a 31-year-old nonverbal man with autism. Though he couldn’t express in words that he enjoyed manning a camera, he said so with his eyes and smile. To boot, one of his photographs of cherry blossoms was even used by a high-end travel magazine to accompany an article on cherry blossoms. “They needed a photograph of cherry blossoms,” a spokesman is quoted as saying. “He was credited as a photographer. It had nothing to do with the fact he’s autistic.”

Armed with a camera, you already know photography is a great way for you to connect with others, show the world as you see it. But if you turn that idea on its head, you’ll see that a camera also offers a great way for you to see the world as others see it, maybe even the only way. There is real beauty in that, in the images themselves and the way they can help us connect those hardest to reach—the isolated, the misunderstood, the lonely, and others living in worlds that seem foreign to us.

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