Me, Myself, I

Portraits Of And by Students With Autism

London-based arts charity, Create, recently ran a workshop which paired up professional photographer Alicia Clarke with a group of students who have autism. The resulting series Me, Myself, I is dynamic and full of movement and life, distilling the identities of these unique individuals deftly.

“One of the challenges with working with young adults on the autism spectrum is that there is such a huge range of abilities and needs,” explains Alicia. “A short attention span is common so my project had to work fast, but also adults on the autistic spectrum often have an intense interest in one subject so it is about harnessing that and working with subjects that are interesting to each individual.”

Many of the students found it difficult to understand the process of photography at first because there is no immediate output, so Alicia introduced ways of getting movement into the pictures – using scarves and torches wrapped in coloured pieces of cellophane which they used in front of a camera with a slow shutter speed. The movement in these portraits evokes a sense of freedom, self-expression and emotion, communicative and social acts which autistic young people commonly experience challenges with.

“Using the colours and the torches really brought everything to life. We were not just pressing buttons on a camera. We were moving and creating these portraits with our bodies,” said one of the students. “I don’t have many chances to be creative so I liked being able to join in and see everyone else having a good time too.”

We spoke to Alicia about the project:

The Plus: What do you think the participants took away from the project?
Alicia Clarke: I think they had huge amounts of fun whilst learning to focus on being in the present and enjoy spending time with their friends. I also really enjoyed the big smiles and the sense of pride you could see they felt when seeing their work projected up on a big screen and being complimented on it.

TP: Did you learn anything from them?
AC: This project really taught me to think on my feet and respond to the needs of the group as they became apparent, adapting my teaching as we went along, whilst also keeping a framework that provided a feeling of security and safety. Alongside this very quick thinking I learned to keep a calm, gentle and nurturing exterior that would enable me to be sensitive to individuals.

TP: Why do you think projects like this are important?
It really helps for young people on the autistic spectrum to learn to move out of their comfort zone and learn new skills and just to practice being out in the world and interacting with others. Whilst I enjoyed every moment of the project I also found it exhausting so there is another aspect to this in that it gives the main carers or parents a much needed break.

TP: Have you worked with people with autism previously?
No this was my first opportunity. I did loads of research into this group to put together an event that they’d enjoy, but it was still a huge learning curve on the day, and ultimately hugely rewarding.