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Confessions of an Autistic Photographer

Confessions of an Autistic Photographer

Photography is a broad church. It is an art form, it is a tool of the press, it is a form of recreation, it is a business. It is social record. It is a medium for pornography and it also records family history, sometimes at one and the same time. It was a relatively niche interest for the first 100 years of its existence and a world-changing global phenomenon in the last ten. It is many things to many people, but to me it is therapy. To explain why I need to give you a bit of back-story.

I started going to school in the early 1970s and finished my illustrious educational career in 1990. I hated pretty much every nano-second of my schooling (with the exception of my university years) from the day I walked through the gates of St Thomas More Roman Catholic Primary in 1970, to the day I left Stevenage Six Form College in 1986. I never felt like I fitted in and I was continually bored out of my mind. I was a disruptive force, a trouble-maker, a truant and I was seemingly destined for a life collecting supermarket trollies from shopping centre carparks. I grew up autistic in an era when nobody knew what autism was, let alone how to manage people who had it. It wasn’t until I was middle-aged that I was diagnosed with Aspergers Syndrome and by the time I was I had discovered my own coping mechanisms. Principle amongst those coping mechanisms was photography.

Me, being all autistic and shit.

Caught on Camera

I’ve never been much of a people person and I have always been happy in my own company. I find spending time with people to be problematic and, in all honesty, I can only stand it for so long. When interactions with groups of people do occur, it’s not always a smooth ride. One aspect of Aspergers is an inability to pick up on normal social cues. As a result of this, those of us with this brain chemistry can come across as insensitive, aloof, arrogant or inconsiderate. We don’t always lack empathy (although that’s partly true in my case), just that we don’t see the visual clues that everyone else picks up on. So being in groups can be awkward for folks like myself and, while I do (sometimes) make an effort to socialise, I’m really not very good at it.

I realised that I need a way to get myself back on an even keel and I chanced upon photography almost by accident. One day I was skipping a lesson at school and, while I was exploring the recesses of the teaching block I discovered the school darkroom. I didn’t know the school had this room and I didn’t know how to use it, but I absolutely loved all the equipment in there and the bottles of chemicals and how it felt exotic in an environment that was otherwise relentlessly, mind-numbingly, sleep-inducingly dull. So I joined the photography club and I learnt how to take photographs and to develop film and produce prints. I loved it so much that I bought my own second-hand enlarger and used to develop and print in the family bathroom, with a large towel wedged against the small window to keep the light out.

After that I started going out into the landscape with a camera and taking photographs on a regular basis. The point of being out there was to be on my own and to recharge my batteries. I got immersed in the process of landscape photography, in the process of finding good compositions and also in the technical aspects of making the photograph, but it was also about simply getting away from it all. Admittedly, craving solitude is hardly unique to people with Aspergers, but it is one element of the reason that photography helps keep me sane.

Coping mechanisms aside, my Aspergers manifests itself in sometimes disruptive ways in my photographic hobby. If I turn up at a location and there are a couple of photographers already there then I’ll just go elsewhere. This is partly because I usually don’t want to talk to anyone and partly because I don’t want to photograph the same scene as them. My idea of a horror show is a line of photographers, shoulder to shoulder, cameras on tripods, all photographing the same thing.

A portrait of the artist as a middle-aged man.

Reality Check

While many photographers enjoy the social aspects of the hobby, for me that is certainly not the case. Photographers I know often head out with friends to photograph certain locations, but this is something I do only very rarely. In fact now I think about it, it’s only happened three times in my entire life. For someone who’s working on their Instagram follower numbers, this can prove problematic. Many photographers get together, go to Instameets and Photo Walks and share their work between their various accounts, thereby increasing each others follower numbers. I’ve been to two Instameets in my life – one because I was paid to be there and one because it was associated with a Facebook group I help run. So I have to rely on my own efforts alone to get noticed and I’m fine with that.

Another aspect of my autism is the triple-whammy of obsession, repetition and routine. People with Aspergers often have highly focused interests and my photography certainly qualifies. When it comes to my favourite photographic themes, I seek out strong colours and that means I love sunrises and sunsets. Not it’s not the most original photographic subject, but it’s the one I love. However, while many people like photographing the beginning and end of the day, for me I suspect it goes a step or two further than that. The truth is that I obsess about capturing those skies and feel physically anxious if the sky is starting to colour and I do not have access to a camera and a location to photograph that sky from. I have been known to get up from the dinner table, leaving hot food steaming on the plate and drive somewhere because the sky has been unexpectedly colourful. I have left restaurants for the same reason. If I agree to go out somewhere and am unable to capture a colourful sky, I get incredibly anxious. From the outside such behaviour just looks weird or immature, but the fact is that disruptions to routines and obsessions provoke an almost physical response in me. Most folks can put the camera on the shelf and get on with their lives, but I’m always checking cloud forecasts, double-checking sunrise/sunset times, looking at tide heights and weather forecasts, scoping out locations on Google Maps, double-checking every battery is charged up and that every camera has a card and a spare, making sure that wherever I am at that precise moment is drivable to my chosen photo location with at least 30 minutes of night-time or daylight to spare. Fortunately I have a very understanding wife.

In many ways, my autism has been a positive influence on my photography. There is no way I would have been to so many places and photographed so many different locations if it wasn’t always in the back of my head, pushing me to get out and shoot. I don’t think I would have learnt as many techniques and tried so many different styles had I not been compelled to by my photographic obsession. By means of repetition I have become dextrous with my equipment and proficient with the various post-processing applications that are essential when, like all sensible people, you shoot RAW.

I suppose that the $64,000 question is, would any or all of this have happened if I wasn’t Autistic? Would I have got into photography to the extent that I have? Maybe. Do other photographers arrive at the same destination as me, without having weird brain chemistry to push them into it? Undoubtedly. Does my autism play a part in the kind of photographs I take and the way I process them. Definitely.

Autism doesn’t define me, any more than the colour of my eyes does, but it is a huge part of my personality and has had an on-going and very direct influence on how I fill my days. Now that I’m over the humpday of life and cruising down the other side of the hill I’m beginning to realise just how big an influence it has had on me, without me even being aware of it. It’s only now, reflecting on the twists and turns of my life, and in the part that photography has played in that journey, that I realise I’m always at my happiest when I have a camera in my hand.

18 Comments

  1. Marc Lawrence-Howe

    Hi, Andy. I got here via petapixel, but just wanted to send a high-five from a fellow, middle-aged, late-dx (2 years ago), autistic guy who also enjoys photography. Also southern NSW, though very much inland from you. I know there’s that saying, “when you meet one autistic person, you’ve met one autistic person”, but it’s also nice to read something and think, “Yeah, that’s it, he gets it, he knows what it was/is like. And I’m not alone with it” (ironic as that is in a way, considering the pleasure of solitude). So, I enjoyed very much reading this, and enjoyed very much your photos. It’s all a cheering inspiration. Thanks. Marc.

    • tenthousandshots

      Thanks Marc. Happy the article has been responded to in the way that it has as I was concerned I might be misinterpreted. 🙂

  2. Lynda Murray

    Hi Andy, I really enjoyed reading your confessions of an autistic photographer. As a parent of a late diagnosed son and as a amateur photographer myself I can relate to many of the words you spoke of. Autism spectrum was still unknown in the nineties and we had some dreadful school days until diagnosis and more information came to be better understood and accepted. I always took the responsibility of advocacy seriously on his behalf and am still assisting young ones in school with the same difficulties today. Time out is valued now unlike many years ago. Classes have more strategies to help people cope better within the busy system. Your photographic obsession is a very interesting and challenging one that also gets you out into the wide blue yonder which is fantastic and relaxing. (mostly) I get those feels also!. I also enjoy the same light that you mention although as an older person seems sunsets are my fave these day! I am on the Sunny coast and follow you on fb.

    • tenthousandshots

      Cheers Lynda. The situation has definitely improved greatly. My son has Aspergers too and his school have done a great job catering to his needs and supporting him. 🙂

  3. Geoff Flood

    Andy, not only a competent photographer, but also a writer that writes incredibly readable prose. In this day and age of quick skimming, your writing always makes me slow down and actually read. Well done.

  4. Kerry

    Hi Andy, Thank you for sharing your inspiring story. I really enjoy your photographs. They offer me access to the spectacular beauty of environments I am unable to visit. You have also inspired me to buy a decent camera, although I’m still working out how to use it!
    Lastly I’d like to let you know that I have an 11 year old grandson, and a 9 year old nephew, both with autism. School is a real struggle. It is not their favorite place. They are beautiful, bright boys and I hope, like you, they’re journey will offer them a way to see their marvellous brains, and their unique ways of understanding the world, as the gifts that they are. I will show your story to them…and I’m thinking, a couple of cameras will make great birthday presents.

    • tenthousandshots

      Hey Kerry. School is a challenge, that’s for sure, although the teaching environment has improved greatly for folks on the spectrum as I have discovered with my own son. Hope they like their cameras 🙂

  5. Gloria Leonard

    Hi Andy, I have just finished reading your story on your life with Aspergers. I found it very interesting as I have a 13 year old granddaughter with Aspergers also. It explains a lot to me. She seems to fit what you explain as your wanting solitude in the course of your life. She is very intelligent but also disruptive and naughty. She goes from being an 8 year old to an eighteen year old and all ages in-between.She spends hours comfortably in her own company and her passion is chickens. I will be visiting her in Dunedoo soon and I might just buy her a camera to take photo’s of her prize winning pets. I wanted to be a photographer when I was young but family got in my way. I think the reason I love your work so much is that the photo’s you take are timeless. They don’t have many people in them so could have been taken now or hundreds of years ago. I am pleased I have been following you for quite a while in your artistry of photography. I love so much seeing all you take and the colours and solitude of your shots. I used to save your shots so I was able to sit in my lounge and enjoy the solitude and beauty of what you see. It gives me so much pleasure. Since you have changed you system I am unable to save them but I will still enjoy what you post on fb Thank you so much for all you do Andy..

    • tenthousandshots

      Hey Gloria. Thanks for the kind feedback. Being on the spectrum can be testing for everyone that’s for sure and a camera may a great option for your granddaughter – definitely worth trying. The slideshows have been designed with a full-screen button for easy viewing but I’ll see if I can enable right-click downloads on them. 🙂

  6. Sandra Groom

    Andy, what an insight you have given me, aand how generously you have shared yourself. I’m awed by your photographs and your willingness to share with us all. ❤️ My son is a passionate photographer too, and I recognise some of the qualities you mention – and he isn’t autistic – just artistic! – as you are! Thank you for your gift. ❤️

  7. Trish Roberts

    Hi Andy, thanks so much for revealing your personality, life and motivations. That makes sense in how your beautiful photography comes across. I am not autistic but can identify with a desperate need to spend time alone, and to get away from the scenery when there are others there. When I was a teacher in the Infants’ Department of a Primary School, I taught a young autistic fellow called Tim. I still have memories about Tim and his way of organising his responses to life. I have different challenges in my own life but have come to a place of contentment, so long as I can do things the way I want to. When I lived in America, a friend gave me a longer version of The Serenity Prayer, which I personally find helpful: “God grant me the serenity to accent the things I cannot change, Courage to change the things I can, and Wisdom to know the difference. Give me patience for the changes that take time, Tolerance for those with different struggles, and the Strength to try again, one day at a time.”

    • G

      Thank you, Andy.
      As a fellow recluse (for different reasons), I appreciate your baring your heart and sharing a little of what makes you ‘tick.’
      I am not ready yet to do even that. You impress me.
      Enjoy your solitude!

  8. Symo

    Hi Andy, great blog post. It was nice to bump into you the other day down at Seven Mile Beach. What I didn’t tell you (because we were keen to get up and flying quickly with the remaining glimpse of sunrise) is that I was there with my 13 y/o Aspie son and I am also of the same “affliction” as it were. I too get obsessed about certain things, flying drones, FPV and photography being some of those. I too learned how to cope through life, not being aware of it, just being, well, “different”, “nerdy” or “awkward”. These days it’s very different and my son was properly diagnosed at age 5 and gets all the treatment and care that he needs since the world knows so much more about it compared to when I (and you) were children and making our way through the world.

    Your comment about dropping dinner and running out the door to capture a sunset sounds so familiar and Aspie/autistic – like. Love it!

    I think it really is an important part of one’s psychological make-up and it definitely impacts how you see things in the world. I have no doubt that it makes your photography as good as it is.

    • tenthousandshots

      Thanks Simon. Yep – my son’s in the same boat – and it’s terrific that they’re getting the support they need these days. Was nice to see you guys down on the beach – jeez those quads can move!

  9. Sandra Groom

    What a generous sharing of your life and your art. Thank you for your beautiful images and your big heart. You give joy and colour and experiences to so many, and I am grateful.

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