Previous news story    Next news story

Young man with autism turns to photography for communication

By dpreview staff on Sep 9, 2013 at 09:30 GMT

For some of us, photography is a hobby. For others, it's a way to make a living. For Forrest Sargent, a 22-year-old with autism who is unable to speak, it's a veritable lifeline. His communication is limited to spelling out words using a letter board, a method which allowed him a much-needed way to express himself. 

Beyond that, he communicates with a gift from his parents bought for his 19th birthday: a camera. His photos capture family and landscapes, and perhaps most importantly, open up another avenue of expression to him. In his own words, photography gives him 'a way to show my feelings and my real mind'.

In an article in the Bellingham Herald, his parent explain how they 'installed a grip handle at the bottom of a point-and-shoot camera to help him manage', and how Forrest - who suffers from medication-induced tremors - has adopted the habit of taking five pictures at a time to maximize the chances of getting a sharp image. 

 Photo by Forrest Sargent.
 Photo by Forrest Sargent.
 Photo by Forrest Sargent.
 Photo by Forrest Sargent.

Some of Forrest Sargent's images might look like little more than snapshots, but his work is a welcome reminder that for some people, photography is about a lot more than learning techniques and collecting expensive gear. 


Total comments: 33
By KariIceland (7 months ago)

Just remember folks, for someone with autism this is not an easy thing to do AND he is LEARNING, heck my photos looked worse when i first started out. And I am certain so did many of yours when you all started out

Comment edited 31 seconds after posting
1 upvote
Mirrorless Crusader
By Mirrorless Crusader (7 months ago)

If his parents weren't so cheap and/or clueless, they would have bought him a real camera with a real grip that has PASM so he could use shutter priority and not have to ridiculously take five photos of everything, just use a faster shutter speed. These photos are all blatantly overexposed and blown out anyway. And maybe a real camera instead of some garbage P&S would actually have decent enough image quality and JPEG processing to eliminate some of that grotesque color noise. Somebody get this guy a Sony A3000 so he can use a real camera with legitimate image quality instead of some piece of junk that doesn't even have a proper grip.

By KariIceland (7 months ago)

Holy hell, you are officially th biggest piece of poo i know of in photography. Maybe they are poor and could not afford a more expensive camera? Or just maybe like 95% of the world they are clueless about photography, you know kind of how you are clueless about reality, kindness and an open mind?

Ivan Lietaert
By Ivan Lietaert (7 months ago)

Good for you Forrest!
The least we can say is that this photographer has a message, per definition. Many 'gear heads' on this forum take and post 'empty' pictures showing off their newest lens or camera.

ABM Barry
By ABM Barry (7 months ago)

Thank you so much for sharing Forrest. I understand that the photographic process must be very difficult for you.

I applaud you and look forward to following your progress.

I'm sure you have something unique to offer the art beyond what any of us here.

Kind Regards:

Barry M. Australia

By BobORama (7 months ago)

In terms of C&C, I think this is an example of the "soft bigotry of low expectations." Its interesting to see Forrest's creative process in action:

Which seems to be pressing the shutter without aiming the camera. I suspect a lot of the "art" is in the judicious parental selection of the good shots.

I am very leery of facilitated communication techniques, as over the past 20 years, a series of these techniques have emerged and been thoroughly debunked. Rapid prompting is the latest incarnation of FC. That dad leads / anticipates the completion of words, and moves the stencils, hints at facilitator effect. I have no idea what the situation is for Forrest, hopefully I'm wrong.

In previous incarnations of facilitated communication, the child is turned into a biological Ouija board, which the parent unconsciously operates. And most parents don't care if it really works or not, as long as they believe it does.

By MarshallG (7 months ago)

Do you get a thrill out of insulting handicapped people?
Vincent VanGogh had a disability too. Maybe you can casually dismiss their artwork, but they're both renown artists. And you aren't, are you?

You ought to be ashamed of yourself

ABM Barry
By ABM Barry (7 months ago)

You are a decidedly unpleasant individual. I expect that the pic you chose for your icon is very accurate,... Ugly on the outside too!

So what are you doing this weekend, .... Wheelchair bashing!

Leandros S
By Leandros S (7 months ago)

Reading is no guarantee for understanding. The point BobORama is making is that if there is a facilitator who can interfere with the communication, even subconsciously and unintentionally, there is no guarantee that the final message is what the disabled person wanted to say. However, I don't think communication is really what is happening here. Forrest is taking photographs as an exploration - it's not a substitute for the other communication techniques he's using. So the title of the story seems overhyped and to be missing the point.

By calking (7 months ago)

Lendros -- thoughtfully put.

1 upvote
By BobORama (7 months ago)

Marshall and AMB Barry,

Neither of you have bothered to post an avatar, so you deprive me of the opportunity to look into your soul.

I believe you missed the point entirely, and if you were more informed about dark history of facilitated communication and the lack of credible evidence that rapid prompting actually works you would take my post in the spirit it was intended.

In other words, if you had skin in the game you might view this with the healthy skepticism that helps protect the interest of vulnerable individuals. FC is insidious, and its damaging. Learn something about it.

There are really only two ways to view this piece: subconscious, unintentional, and subtle exploitation -or- a triumph over ones disabilities. The distinction is critical.

Believe me, I want the Disney ending too. But having seen the damage done by the last 20 years of RPM's discredited predecessors, I can't view this as the rainbows and unicorns feel good fluff piece DPR hoped for.

By Kassidy (7 months ago)

I don't know much about photography, art, or guided communication...but I know that, in this case, it's just exploitation. You are the only person I've seen comment online about this situation who doesn't seem to be projecting their own beliefs and emotions onto Forrest. Thank you for your understanding, wise, and unfortunately accurate assessment. Notice the shadows in the third picture? I know people want to grasp onto the inspirational element of this story...but distinguish between what is real and what's false. The artwork--final selections, location, and individual subject matter of the photos--is all the parent's choices (or whomever is with him). As far as I know, the profit is entirely theirs also...not that he cares. His daily caregivers aren't given access to the "communication board", or told how it works...or allowed to watch the sessions. The upside? Forest LOVES to walk, especially outside, and the parental exploitation of his situation facilitates more of that for him.

Comment edited 38 seconds after posting
By KariIceland (7 months ago)

So basicly he does the same type of photography as you. But unlike your worthless insulting butt, he has an excuse.

By justmeMN (7 months ago)

Heartwarming story. Life must be really, really, hard when you are autistic.

1 upvote
By VidJa (7 months ago)

So true.

I work with children with various forms of autism and if you see what 'taking pictures' does with our group it is truly amazing. I started with giving them a simple point and shoot but when one of the kids grabbed my old D50 with the 85/f1.8 on it i was blown away with his intuitive use of DOF and selective focus.
His sheer handling of the camera was next to frightning, as if it was a third eye. Something to be jealous of considering my own mediocre work.

Kookie B
By Kookie B (7 months ago)

"Some of Forrest Sargent's images might look like little more than snapshots . . ."

Clearly, one person's snapshot is another person's art.

In my opinion, if the purpose of art is to express the message of the artist, then these pictures are the quintessential definition of both art and artist.

Especially given the unique circumstances behind these photographs, I'd like to see more.

Ed B.

1 upvote
By SnapHappy32 (7 months ago)

Cant reply to the post I wanted...

Ddd - rrr. Your and his story gave me a big smile on an otherwise hectic and rainy day.

I see what he saw. I understand. He is communicating with me.
Thats very comforting - the kid has a way out of a very solitary existance.
The tragedy is that he might never know it himself.
Just hope (and believe) that he's having a blast doing it.

By Frank_BR (7 months ago)

Another proof that a picture is worth a thousand words.

Just curious to know if he also uses video to communicate…

By photosen (7 months ago)

Cool story.

By CaseyComo (7 months ago)


ddd - rrr
By ddd - rrr (7 months ago)

This story was particularly interesting to me as an Asperger (that syndrome is a high-functioning sub-set of autism). It never occurred to me that my "voracious" picture-taking (now up to about 30,000 photos per year), and the photos I tend to take (whatever I see around me, generally not of people, often of nature, and often "quirky") may be related to my Asperger syndrome. I have been lucky, and have had many museum shows and I could also teach photography for several years - and I was also able to make a small living with photography. It was good to see this article on someone far worse off than I who could also use photography for communication.

Comment edited 4 times, last edit 9 minutes after posting
By Mentatmark (7 months ago)

I also am a voracious photographer with Asperger's. Argus 75mm TLR with 620 film I developed myself was my start. I see in pictures, now I can share my thoughts with people instead of getting tongue tied with language. I have encouraged others with forms of autism to try it too.

ABM Barry
By ABM Barry (7 months ago)

Hello fellow Aspergerians. I have come to the conclusion and understanding that a large proportion of highly intelligent people are on the spectrum!
Our 8 year old daughter was diagnosed as being on the spectrum when she was 4. I introduced her to photography and the rate that she embraced the technical aspect was uncanny!

By 5 yrs she understood the effect of hyperfocal distance, depth of field, relationship between shutter and aperature and could focus a Nikkor 400mm on my Nikon Ftn Photomic 35mm SLR!

There is a pic of her using the Nikon in my DPR gallery.

Photography touches people in many ways.

Kind Regards
Barry M

RD Flashbulb
By RD Flashbulb (7 months ago)

Photography is a way of communicating, and Forest Sargent has discovered its strength. Using images to say "Look at the beauty of nature around us, in the things we see every day, though perhaps only in a fleeting way, but I was there. I saw this. It is wonderful. Look!" is a fundamental use of photography. Forest Sargent, in my opinion, does this very well. RDF

Jeff Greenberg
By Jeff Greenberg (7 months ago)

If this is work of photo savant,
its probably the images that are
NOT being shown that have been
dismissed as mistakes by newspaper
photo editor, but are, paradoxically,
breaking new ground...?

Comment edited 51 seconds after posting
By jcmarfilph (7 months ago)

It is more of sympathy than appreciation. Had you not mentioned that this is a work of autistic, I am pretty sure bashing will go all over the place.

carlos roncatti
By carlos roncatti (7 months ago)

if you understand that his difficulties are far worse than ours, his pictures are not just good, they are far better than what we see here at dpreview. Simply as that. And i' ve seen much worse photos here.

By tompabes2 (7 months ago)

I thought the article was not about the quality of his "work", but about how photography helped him to communicate... and also, maybe, find a meaning for its life...

Comment edited 2 minutes after posting
By ethern1ty (7 months ago)

True way of communicating !!!

1 upvote
By Freestyler (7 months ago)

An awesome feel good story, thanks for the reality-check dpreview and Bellingham Herald.

Stealthy Ninja
By Stealthy Ninja (7 months ago)

I don't think anyone is going to do much of a critique on his work.

I'll just say, it's nice he has a way of communicating. :)

Waimak Stud
By Waimak Stud (7 months ago)

Actually, good use of negative space, leading lines, rule of thirds. His pictures stand up to critique even. A good heartwarming story.

By Marla (7 months ago)

Thank you for posting this story. I had purchased a p&s camera for a young lady who has autism. Photography is not just a way of communication, but it opens up a whole new world. My little friend has always been aware of the beauty in nature, and now she can capture it. This in itself gives her confidence - and is a source of joy (and fun) in her life.

Comment edited 1 minute after posting
Total comments: 33