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An autistic photographer

I was diagnosed as autistic in the summer of 2018. I’m 41 as I write this and maybe half way through my life so I use the diagnosis to analyse where I’ve been and where I’m going.

Where have I been? I’ve been to computer world for a large portition of my life. I was given a C64 at the age of 6 and took to it like a Klingon to honour. I soaked up knowledge and coded till my late 20s. I loved it. I loved finding things online and making new programs. I loved that the internet provided me with an amazing space to play. I have a degree in Software Engineering, only a 2.1 so I’m no programming genius but still a degree non the less.

I look back on those days with my diagnosis and I can see autism at work. Primary school teachers would say “gifted” with computers. They would also say “shy” and “kept to himself”. When I got access to the internet I was running up phone bills and reading everything I could. So much cool stuff to explore. I guess you could call this “hyperfocus” which is often spoke about in the autistic community. The ability to block the world out and focus on a single task. That’s a great skill for a programmer to have.

I guess you could also say that computers were my special interest. Another autistic trait. Finding 2 or 3 things to be intensily interested in. People would say obssessed. Star Trek was also a special interest. Oh those technical guides to the Enterprise D. Yeah! But it was so handy mixing hyperfocusing and special interests together at the start of my career. It felt like I was totally on point. I was a conduit. Soaking up information, processing and applying it. I was a machine, learning.

Today I’m a photographer. Why? Well turns out I hated being in an office. I couldn’t stand being in a small room with lots of other people all being hugely irritating. No offence as I know it’s not their fault in any way. It was autism and sensory processing. I could feel every footstep in the office through my desk as the floor was quite wobbly. Even if I tried to block out the noise in the office I could still feel it through the desk as I worked. Then there was the daily challenge of small talk. None of the web design jobs I had were in a pure design compnay of like minded people. They were always odd spaces so I never really had people to talk to. At least people I could really talk to. It was hard work and I had no real idea why. Now I do.

Looking back through the autistic time lens I can also see that photography quickly became a special interest of mine. Yay autism. It was something technical I could read up on and really get stuck into. In 2 or 3 years I went from not understanding ISO, Aperture and Shutter Speeds to having one of the top guides on the internet on HDR and a decent audience on my, this, blog. 3 million hits a month back then. That’s probably down to autism and mixing speciali interests with hyperfocusing. I was really good at what I did back then. Annoyingly what I was doing was marmite photography called HDR (High Dynamic Range) and I guess I learned all the technical parts of photography so quick I missed the artistic side of it.

I really can see how autism has benefited me over those years. I often think maybe I should have stayed a programmer? Put me down in front of a screen and set me a task. Off I go. I have to remind myself that I’ve been a professional photographer now longer than a professional web designer. This really is who I am now and this path I’ve walked has led me here. I’m happy here. I think this is the better version of me. The doubt is there because I’ve soaked up the technicalities of photography and what I’m interested in now is the story telling aspect. I’m yet to understand how my autism helps now. I can’t hyperfocus or specaial interest in on people or architecture. It feels more like it hinders because to do the work I oddly enjoy I have to interact with people. I have to be out in the world. The noisy, loud, blinding, bright, confusing, messy complicated world. I have to be good with people. A “people person” if you will. Remember why I left my office job days behind? Yeah. People are the worst.

They’re not though. They’re amazing. There’s no greater feeling for me than to produce a good portrait of someone because it’s evidence that we connected, even for a moment, we connected and made this photograph. I may not be able to see how autism helps me at the moment but I can see how it hinders me. I have to worry about doing small talk while thinking about lighting a scene, ignoring all the sounds and lights around me, not worrying about how I’m being perceived by the subject and trying to make eye contact so I appear “normal”. You can’t practice this either. I can practice a landscape by going to a mountain on my own and photographing it over and over. But portraits? Nope. I have get right into the fear and anxiety and push through. Thats why doing portrait photography is incredibly important to me. Every portrait is an internal fight and every portrait is a reward.

About the same time as I received my autism diagnosis I received an email from the British Journal of Photography saying my portrait of Valerie, a woman from Port Sunlight, was to be shortlisted in their “Portrait of Britain” competition. I was in the top 200 from around 13,000 entries. The photograph was printed in a book next to Michelle Sank whose work I saw at the Open Eye Gallery back in 2007 and left an impression with me. It was an amazingly timed bit of news. I’m disabled. I’m autistic. I can’t do this. Should I be doing this? “Here’s an award for doing this. Keep going.”

So while I can’t see how autism is helping me today I can see how it’s got me here. If I can figure out how to better utilise it for the future maybe things will be ok.

By Pete

Photographer and part time Spider-man.