“I look at the world differently”: Interview with autistic photographer Joe James
Joe James is a self-taught photographer, whose stunning pictures are gaining him increasing popularity on social media. He is using the attention he has received from his photos as a platform to spread awareness and understanding about his autism, which he describes as a ‘superpower’.
I met with Joe and his beautiful wife Sylvia for lunch on a sunny day at Devils Dyke, to talk about his photos, the difficulty of living with superpowers, bullies, mindfulness and breaking stereotypes.
All images in this article
© Joe James
“I can take pictures of things that other people aren’t seeing. Because I look at the world differently.”
Joe has only been shooting since September and explained to me that he was able to master photography so quickly because of the fact that he has an eidetic memory “Rather than remembering things I visualize them in absolutely accurate detail”. He explained that is helpful for his photography, because he is able to store thousands of images in his head, which means that he has a broad frame of reference when taking his own pictures.
Joe describes his eidetic memory as his ‘superpower’ because it gives him the ability to pick things up faster than most people, to learn everything about something and then master it.
After using this storage of photos in his mind, and comparing them to things he sees in real life (such as angles and lighting) Joe makes his photos look how he thinks they should be seen.
“I’ll see something that someone else isn’t seeing”
Often, when he first takes a picture it does not represent the way that he sees the world. This means that he spends a lot of time editing, which is a process that he very much enjoys.
‘They think, oh it didn’t look like that when I was there.’
“I love creating something that’s more than just a picture.”
Joe told me that he took a picture of ‘Pooh Bridge’ when he went to Ashdown Forest with his daughter. He explained that it was a nice shot, but it didn’t look how he wanted it to look.
“I thought, when I was there it was magical. But this picture isn’t how I imagined that moment in my head. So I thought, okay I’ll make it how I want it to look.”
Joe edited the image so that it represented the honey sandwiches, Pooh sticks and the magical day he had experienced with his daughter. He posted it online with a poem and it blew up “Lots of people commented saying that it took them back to reading the adventures of Winnie the Pooh, as if it was almost a fantasy of Pooh Bridge.”as if it was almost a fantasy of Pooh Bridge.“
“Somehow my picture brought people together, it made people happy, made people remember.”
Joe was clear to explain to me that he’s not using his autism to promote his photography as some skeptics are suggesting online, but that in fact, it is the other way around.
“It’s like saying hey, you like my pictures do you? They’re pretty pictures? Okay let me talk to you about autism.”
Joe was not diagnosed with autism until five years ago when he and Sylvia were watching television together.“We were watching a TV show about a little boy and it was about ‘are they naughty or is there something more’ – I can’t remember what it was called. And went Sylvia said ‘Thats you”
He explained that he “didn’t see it at first” so, they rewound the programme and watched the section again “And I was like oh, oh yeah that was definitely me.”
For the 32 years before he was diagnosed Joe was experiencing the world in a way that he described as ‘timesing uncomfortability by a hundred’, but, through lack of understanding, was considered by his parents and schools to be a naughty child. “People go its okay for you Joe,you’re high on the spectrum, but I wasn’t. It was kind of like do or die, sink or swim. Because I didn’t know I had autism, no one treated me specially. People just told me off all the time or shouted at me or smacked me.”
Joe explained that he was not high functioning when he was younger, most of the time he was non-verbal, when he did talk it would be in a whisper or a stutter, and he also had a tick. One of the memories that he shared with me from his childhood was when he had a meltdown on a train and was screaming and banging his head against the pole, because of the fact that his balloon popped. Sylvia explained that “Something small can be so out of control for an autistic person, it would be like their world ended.”
He took me back to this memory. He was on a train, heading home from Hamley’s where he had been to see Father Christmas. A clown had made him a dog out of a balloon…
“I can remember it. It was a blue balloon, and it was next to the door and we were standing, me and my little brother, and at that exact time I was thinking about Michael Jackson because I was seeing my reflection in the window of the train and I was thinking about the Michael Jackson song ‘Man in the mirror’. And somehow I got distracted and the balloon fell down and the balloon popped. I just lost it completely. I’m talking, banging my head on the pole you hold. I just lost it.”
I asked Joe if he could describe what had made him lose it so completely – was it the fact that he no longer had the balloon?
“It was the fact that it didn’t make sense that my balloon animal had popped. I knew it wasn’t going to last forever, I wasn’t stupid, but it was, why did it pop, the frustration of, why did it come out my hand, why did it pop – the whole thing didn’t make sense. So then I lost it, I couldn’t handle it. And that still happens now. I still don’t understand it. There was nothing on the floor that would have made the balloon pop, I think that’s why I got so annoyed.”
I asked him if there was anything that helped him in a situation like this, if he could predict something happening that was out of his control, did it make it easier for him to handle?
“Yes. It’s expectation levels. My expectation levels of today was that we were going to come here and I was going to have a three-course meal. But then I changed that expectation level because I thought that might not be appropriate, so I didn’t just go with one thing in my head. I decided to broaden my perspective, to have different scenarios that could play out.”
He explained that he still regularly has this feeling that he “can’t handle it”. This goes back to his description of “timesing uncomfortably by a hundred.” He used an example from the morning that we met, explaining that he wanted to wear a specific jacket but he couldn’t find it, and he was still upset hours later.
Joe explained that what helps him feel like he has control of situations is to broaden his perspective and to imagine the different scenarios that could play out so that he is prepared for them. He explained that Sylvia was a fantastic help, because she talks him through these different scenarios and calms him down.
Sylvia explains that something small can be devastating for an autistic person “It’s like their world breaking. But they can live it easier, they can be helped more through appropriate support and understanding.” Both Sylvia and Joe explained that everyone has different things that can help them “Everybody has their own safe point”.
Joe made it clear that nurturing this safe point for someone with autism is vital because otherwise, fear can result in anger. “I was considered to be aggressive when I wasn’t aggressive. I was acting on anxiety and fear. If you put a dog in a corner, it can be the nicest dog in the world, if you keep bullying that dog, eventually it’s going to snap, and that’s what kept happening when I was younger.”
“I don’t wish I’d gone to a special school, I just wish my school had been more special”
Joe’s experience of school was extremely hard. He said that he could give me one example of how he was treated, but with too many, he would start to get really upset. “When I was a kid, people just thought I was weird, and were like, don’t go near him he’s a weirdo”
“I’d be talking about something that was really interesting to me but not interesting to anyone else. I was a social pariah, I didn’t have any friends.”
At his school, outstanding student work would get put up on a display board in the corridor. Joe thought that getting a picture of his up on this board would stop him being so chronically lonely at school “Maybe people would like me, maybe someone would want to be my friend. Because I was just, on my own.” Joe had two weeks off school because he was ill, and spent his time making “really lovely pictures for the wall”. He was excited on his first day back, but as he was on the way to show the teacher “some kids grabbed my bag, and they pulled my stuff out of my bag, and they found my drawings. And they just, ripped them up. I’d worked on them for two weeks and I thought that these were the things that were going to get me friends and they just ripped them up then ran off laughing. And I just, didn’t want to move. I didn’t want to get up.”
He told me that he doesn’t feel hatred towards the people that bullied him “they’re just kids”, but because of his eidetic memory, which can be really helpful, these experiences are still really hurtful. “I can literally see that happening right now. It’s not a memory its like a video happening in my head. And things like that happened over and over again.”
This memory was just one example of Joe’s experience of chronic bullying, he also described constant kicking on the back of his chair, name-calling, a child popping his basketball with a knife, and even being pushed headfirst into a bin. All because he was ‘different’.
“But I did not let them win, I will never let them win.”
Now at the age of 37, Joe is an extremely cool man, he has tattoos, goes to the gym regularly, is married and a father of two, and radiates positivity and excitement for the world around him. I asked him if he was using his photography to wave the flag for children with autism, or for children that are being bullied today, to show them that they can do amazing things and be appreciated.
“To really sum it up, the reason that I want to do something is because I don’t want other kids to go through what I did.”
Joe wants to spread understanding about autism, to promote acceptance and support so that other children don’t have to experience the cruelty that stems from stigmatisation. “I had to fight every single moment, throughout my childhood and a lot of my adulthood. I had to fight myself, I had to fight others, it was a constant battle. And I don’t want other kids to have to do that”
I also asked Joe if part of the reason why he feels that it is so important to share this message is for the children and adults with autism who cannot express their experience themselves.
“That’s the only reason I’m doing it. I’m doing it so people can understand, parents can understand, that with kids with superpowers there is hope.”
“I believe that every single person with autism has some ability that is hidden and needs to be encouraged”
Joe likes to describe autism as a superpower. He explained that our society wouldn’t be the same without brilliant autistic minds. Darwin, Newton, Einstein, Mozart, James Joyce, Bill Gates, and Steve Jobs have all been placed on the autism spectrum (the reference is available here). However, he also stated that because autism is so stigmatized in our society, the brilliant abilities of people with autism are not adequately acknowledged.
“There are lots of amazing people who do amazing things, but people with autism aren’t thought about in that way. And that’s wrong, because it’s just not true.”
Joe’s artistic skill is arguably due to the fact that photography became a specialised interest for him, his eidetic memory, alongside focus and time, meant that he was able to create successful photographs in a few months, a skill which often takes many years to master. We discussed the fact that if specialised interests are nurtured, there can be world-changing results. The theories of evolution, physics, and relativity, to name a few…
“They need to be given far more chance, especially in a working environment” The three of us explored the idea that specialised interests can make for a fantastic work ethic and have phenomenal results. Joe suggested that if specialised interests could be utilized appropriately in the work-place, if
people could be ‘given a chance’, that we would start to see excellent outcomes. This links to the idea that autism, instead of being seen as a disability, can be seen as supreme ability, or ‘superpower’.
However, Joe was keen to make it clear that “saying its a superpower does not mean that life is easy. Spider-mans life isn’t easy. His life is disabled because of his superpower. He can’t have a normal life because he chooses to use his superpower for something amazing. That’s why I compare it.”
He used the example of Professor X in X-men to suggest that if autistic superpowers were appropriately channeled we might have more acceptance in society.
The whole photographic process is so essential for Joe’s mental health that he describes it as a ‘necessity‘. He explained that the entire journey, from going to a beautiful place, to capturing a shot, to editing an image, is his form of mindfulness. Sylvia: “He’s on time for himself, to keep his mind healthy, that’s what he does”. Both Joe and Sylvia think that mindfulness is incredibly important, and is accessible for everyone “everyone can find their own form of mindfulness”
Sylvia brilliantly summed up the importance of finding a personal form of mindfulness “If you’re good at doing something, and you enjoy it, and it helps you to calm down then do it – and enjoy doing it.”
After discussing the importance of mindfulness, we went on to explore parenting. Sylvia and Joe both said that one difficulty when parenting an autistic child is the desire to protect and cacoon them from the word. However, Slyvia sais: “sometimes it disables them more because they can’t do their own thing. That’s what makes you happy. I think with autistic children, they have to find something that they really can express themselves and love it. And don’t be scared. That’s what Joe wants to show. Don’t be held back.” (Sylvia) “
Joe used the example of Minecraft, where autistic children who are low on the spectrum can make “really amazing things” because of their “inward special abilities”.
“You can get completely immersed in that world, and I don’t think it’s a bad thing.”
Finally, we discussed the stereotypes surrounding autism “people decide because they’ve read one thing about autism that they know what autism is.”
“I like to break the stereotype. I don’t look like they think someone should look who has autism. What does that look like? It’s such a ridiculous concept.”
Because of the stigma that surrounds autism, many people are forced to ‘live in an autistic closet’, where they feel unable to tell their friends, family and work colleagues about their diagnosis. The idea of this autistic closet symbolises the stereotypical box that autistic people are put in. “I don’t see why people should be put in a box. Thats what alot of people do with any disability”
Over all of the experiences Joe shared with me about his life, from chronic bullying, getting kicked out at the age of 17 and being completely misunderstood, what was most significant for me was the love that Joe and Sylvia shared for each other.
Joe says Sylvia sees past all the anger, bitterness, misery he had surrounded himself in when they met “she held out her hand and she pulled me out of this hole. I’ts more than love, it’s like, how do you describe the way you feel about the one person in the world that brought you from absolute despair and helped me make myself into the person I am now. And being the caring, loving, big cuddly monster dad, who loves his kids and teaches them what’s good in the world”
I took the love that Sylvia and Joe radiated, and what this love has enabled Joe to acheive, as an example of how we should treat each other, whether ‘different’ or not.
Accepting the spectrum
The way I think, the way I feel. It’s not the same, it cannot be real. I see the world through different eyes, my brain works different, it’s no suprise.
Why try to change me?, to make me more like you. I’m happy as I am, you should be too.
My perception is unique, my interactions the same. What is normal?, the concept is insane. Let’s all get together, let’s all agree. To put our prejudice aside and live in harmony.
(By Joe James Autistic Photography)
So far Joe has taken two groups of ‘superkids’ out with their families for photography trips. Joe is able to connect with children on the spectrum “which most neurotypicals cannot do”. Joe says that he can connect as he’s never really grown up himself. “That’s what makes me a great Dad. I see it from the child and adults perspective.” If you have a ‘superkid’ who enjoys photography then get in contact with Joe.
Check out Joe’s Facebook page: Joe James Autistic Photography
His Instagram handle: @Joes nature_photography.
Or his website: Autisticphotography.co.uk