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In The Beginning, There Was Alternative Communication

April 13th, 2017

I love those stories of photographers who got their first camera when they were 8 and never put it down. How their grandfather bestowed an old rangefinder and showed them the technical and artistic ropes of photography. It sounds like destiny at work, doesn't it? The road to a moving body of work by XXXX photographer started decades ago, focused and inevitable. A happy story of fate.

How I arrived at this laptop, a small pile of photo gear and storage next to me, typing this blog, was neither focused nor inevitable. Nor very much intentional. An accident, really.

I come from a family of 12 wherein no heirloom cameras were bequeathed. If my parents didn't have 10 of a thing, nobody got that thing. I bought my first camera on a weekend trip to Korea from my home at the time in Taiwan, nearing my mid-20's. It was a Yashica. I was told electronics could be purchased on the cheap there. And I went cheap. That plastic thing didn't weigh but a few ounces. I knew nothing about buying any kind of electronic at that point, anyway. I probably liked the price first and the color second.

There are a few photos from the rest of my time living in Taiwan. They are nothing special. Snapshots. I dream sometimes of going back with my camera. I lived there over 20 years ago. No doubt much has changed and the things I regret not having made photos of may very well be gone.

Not too many years after my return, I met and married my husband. We had no photographer at our wedding. A fact that surprises even me sometimes now. Of this, I also have only snapshots.

When our first daughter was born, I got a decent point and shoot. I pointed. I shot. And I have double prints of nearly every moment of that girl's first few years. We mailed them to the grandmas and tacked them to our bulletin boards at work. Scads of them still sit unsorted and unchronological in boxes in my closet.

Our second daughter was born. I still pointed and I still shot. But the double prints were curbed to maybe every week of that girl's first years. By then, sharing online was on the rise, and thus, even the prints themselves slowed down.

When the younger was two and a half, we uncovered a diagnosis for her. She'd been missing milestones and quite developmentally different than our older daughter. She had also undergone some surgeries and had a few health concerns.

With this diagnosis came the possibility that she might never have verbal speech. With time, that possibility solidified into probability. She is now 13 years old and is still non-speaking. I won't say never. But producing targeted sounds on demand is one of the hardest things for her body to do.

Which is not to say she doesn't communicate. She does. Constantly. She uses sign language and gestures of her own invention. But mostly she uses an application on her iPad that generates speech. She selects icons that say the words for her. She uses this and other apps as her main tools at school in her 7th grade regular ed classes all day.

Her road to alternative communication started when she was almost 4 with some very high-tech then - but primitive now - devices. She was resolutely literal and so the button icons that had meaning for her could not be drawings or symbols. They had to be photographs for the most part. Photographs of the things in her life: her library, her cup, her classroom, her friends and family, her bedroom, her toys, etc. So I took photos of every thing and every place we went. These were loaded into her device and programmed with the corresponding words so that when she found the button with the photo of her own pet fish on it, she would hit it an the synthesized voice said "fish." I did 100% of the photographing, editing, loading onto the device and programming the corresponding words to be spoken.

With camera always in hand, I looked at everything in terms of what angle would be the most relatable to her, what would epitomize the word, what time of day and thus lighting, for this particular place would be most familiar to her. What crop would hold just the essentials and not confuse meaning. What composition would be most memorable to her to so she could navigate back to this button easily when she needed to. What visual thing could represent an abstract concept so she can find this word when she needs it...

With the advent of iThings and consumer devices with touch screens, my part in the programming and design of her communication pages got easier and faster. The devices are all cameras in their own right now. My daughter also grew less literal and more clever. We don't need a photo for every word anymore. She can rely on symbolic cues or even just audible memory to find the words she is looking for. And she is also beginning to type to communicate.

All of these developments meant my camera, now a DSLR, was free from every day utilitarian function. And so was my criteria for the content, lighting, composition and framing. The very person who would communicate with my photos changed.

No longer serving as an extension of my daughter's alternative communication technology, my camera became mine.

The photos I make now say what I want to say.