It’s the last day of the year. I want to take a moment to make sense of what happened with my photo project.
I started my Autism Stories project in January 2023. My first visit to my first participant was on the 21st. I am writing this post almost one year later.
My photo project explores the lives of people with autism and of those around them: family, friends, therapists. It looks at the relations between the persons with autism, those supporting them, and society at large.
So far I have worked with 12 families that have a child or adult with autism. I must have done between 35 and 40 visits, following my participants not only at home but also outside, when they are visiting place and doing things that mean something for them.
The photography I did previously was largely devoid of people. I used to photograph wilderness and deserted urban environments. The project was my first experience in putting people front and center. Getting close to them. Listening to their stories. Being a witness.
Any such project is also a learning experience – and probably it is a learning experience before anything else. These are some of the things I learned along the way.
Taking portraits of kids and adolescents with a neurodevelopmental disability is not something you do by simply asking people on the street or showing up on online forums. These are not photos that you can snap as you pass by. The subjects or their legal guardians need to know and to consent. There needs to be more than one meeting with each subject. There needs to be trust.
But before even consenting or trusting, how do you reach the right people?
In my case, this was done largely through GAMP, a Belgian association for the defense of the rights of people with disabilities. I reached out to them with the project idea, and they were kind enough to promote it and facilitate contacts with families who had children or adolescents with autism.
Getting access and maintaining access to real people with real problems, who do not owe me anything and have more than a lot on their plates, is no easy matter. Understandably, they wanted to know first what the project was about and how they would be involved. They needed to establish some trust in me and the project.
The fact that I am also the parent of a kid with autism might have helped. There is a sense of solidarity and commonality of condition between parents fighting similar battles. But the essential element in establishing trust was discussing directly with participant and explaining what this project meant, why I wanted to do it, but also why they may be interested to take part.
Once access is granted, it needs to be maintained. These are not people coming to have their portraits taken. These are people who decide to share their intimacy and their vulnerability.
You may arrive for a photo visit and discover that the person with autism does not want any photos taken of them. Even if they are non-verbal, they could make it clear that they are feeling uncomfortable and just want to be left alone. It’s frustrating to have made all that way and not be able to photograph, but there’s no projet worth causing additional stress to somebody who is already in a vulnerable position.
The visit can sometimes be used to go deeper into the discussion with the family. There can never be too much context and detail. The photos will only reveal themselves and tell a genuine story if they are placed in the life context of the participant.
In any long-term project, things are bound to hit a wall from time to time. You send emails that are never answered. You propose photo visits that are canceled and rescheduled again and again. You question yourself and the way the project should be developed.
Sometimes it feels like all the material you gathered so far is crap and you have nothing to build on. Sometimes you simply don’t feel up to the task. Sometimes you’re too tired and simply need some time for yourself.
It’s easy to give in to this voice of overwhelm and discouragement. But showing up, simply showing up with no rigid expectations, is also easier than it may seem. To show up for the next visit, to show up for editing the photos, to show up for working on the texts and listening to the recordings with the participants. Once the extra pressure we put on ourselves and the expectations of performing at a high enough level are gone, what is left is a more serene way of going through the moves and getting things done.
And sometimes this is all that is needed, to get things done irrespective of how well they turn out.
Personal photo projects tend to become even more personal as they develop. People open up. You are witnessing suffering and vulnerability. Life unfolds. As you meet the same subjects again and again, you find yourself thinking about them. Thinking about how it is to be them. You’re no longer a detached witness.
But getting too close to the subjects can end up undermining the project. Taking on other people’s vulnerability may become too much. I needed to maintain a certain degree of detachment in order to keep going. I needed to witness with empathy but without fusing with the witnessed situation. I needed to remain aware of my role to reflect life situations honestly but without identifying with my subject’s perspective.
I also struggled with another issue. With time, I came to know quite a lot about the lives of my participants. I often wondered if I would manage to do justice to them when telling these stories. If I was the right person to tell these stories.
I also asked myself if my work would not be seen as a way of trying to speak on behalf of them – something I wanted to avoid at all costs.
While these doubts are still there, in the background, what helped me move forward is reminding myself why I started this and what my intentions were. I may not be the most suitable person to tell these stories in absolute terms. But would it be better if my attempt to tell them, as modest as it may be, didn’t exist at all? Let’s not forget that we are not dealing with a popular topic with lots of public exposure.
I am prone to self-doubt and I usually judge myself harshly. But it can be liberating to realize that some stories do not have too many storytellers ready to step in. You may take the challenge and step in, accepting the limitations and imperfection of what you can do. Or the story may simply remain untold.
And there are so many stories worth telling out there.