Frustrated By Autism, A Father Turns To Photos

Jun 13, 2012
Originally published on June 13, 2012 7:14 pm

"I don't care about autism," says San Francisco-based photographer Timothy Archibald, who has a way of being refreshingly candid about kids who have it.

"They can frustrate you to no end," he says.

Archibald's son, Eli, is autistic. And really, he clarifies on the phone, he doesn't care about the diagnosis. What matters, he says, is his relationship to Eli, however complicated it may be.

"This project was started at a period of utter frustration," he explains, referring to a series of photographs he made with Eli a few years back, titled Echolilia: Sometimes I Wonder.

"Why are the teachers so upset and why is he so different from his brother?" he says. "So we started to make photos out of that feeling of hopelessness. You know that phrase, 'Write what you know'?"

What Archibald knows, I've gathered, is that everything is just a process.

"People jump to all sorts of desperate measures to feel like they're doing something — a diet, a new medication, a special doctor," he says, "and this helped me feel like I was doing something. ... We got to work as equals on something."

I saw Archibald's project for the first time about two years ago, but saw it again this past weekend at a photo festival in Charlottesville, Va., called Look3. The curators of that festival asked Archibald and his son to give commentary on what it was like to work together. Here is what Eli had to say:

"Here's my one manifesto," Archibald says. "I never wanted him to think that he was normal. I wanted him to be aware of how different he was and see that as an asset."

As a result, you can almost hear that self-awareness and confidence in Eli's voice, as he reflects on the project two years after its completion:

"It kind of looks into my mind a bit," Eli says, "and it can kind of show what the autistic brain is like and what autistic kids, or maybe just normal kids in the ages of 5-8, would do."

Archibald considers the photo project to be complete. But "the hard years are coming," he says. "Junior high is ahead of us."

Maybe a new challenge will offer a new collaboration.

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