All Good, Big Fish?

Every time I visit G., I find him in front of his house waiting for me. He has his photo camera ready. We all sit down in the kitchen, him, his mother and me, I ask him what he likes to photograph. A long list follows: cars, trucks, buildings, antennas, walls, clouds, pretty girls, all sorts of people. He insists: all sorts of people – young, old, men, women.

G. spends most of his time in a residential center for persons with a handicap. He spends the weekends back home with his parents.

Unlike many of my other participants with autism, G. talks. A lot. He holds on to his camera and takes pictures of me from time to time. Then he takes pictures through the kitchen window. Then he also brings his video camera and keeps both cameras in each hand. I cannot tell if he is recording me or just pretending to. I have turned from photographer into photo subject.

We go upstairs to his room and G. shows me things that matter to him: a stereo system, a trumpet, a video camera. Oh yes, and pyjamas. G. collects colorful PJs that are several sizes below his size. He can barely fit in some of them. He folds them carefully as we chat about everything and nothing.

We come back downstairs and the three of us sit again at the kitchen table. He shows me photos of various fish: a tuna, a tiger shark, and others I cannot identify. He’s fond of fish. His mom smiles as she tells me that he affectionately calls her “big fish”. Sometimes, when he is at the residential center, he texts her: “How is it going, big fish?”. The text is accompanied by a photo of him smiling. We both burst into laughter but I can feel the emotion underneath.

G. is well known and liked by the neighbors. He sometimes visits them for a chat or accompanies them through the neighborhood. As we go out for a walk in the park nearby, G. stops to chat with an old lady walking her dog. Then he stops another woman to make small talk. And another one. Then the garbage collectors. Everybody seems to have become a neighbor.

Among these neighbors, there used to be a man in his 80s who had once defended G. in front of other people who were bothered by his behavior. And G. started visiting this man and his wife. Just before Christmas or New Year’s Eve, he was passing by to wish them well. The time passed, the wife of this neighbor died, and he was later diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. G. started going to his place regularly to train his memory. They were using the names of the other neighbors. At first, the old man used to remember only one out of four names. Then, two out of four, then three. It was a small celebration when G. came back home to tell his mom that they’ve just had four out of four.

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