Photographer Reathel Geary is on a search for connection with his autistic son, Griffin. With the obvious paths to a close relationship blocked by the autism, Griffin is physically present but emotionally hidden.
Reathel is using his photography to try to capture a sense of those internal moments – even as the essence of the boy inside seems so intangible. With an observer’s eye, he can see the person that autism keeps locked inside its walls.
As a photographer, how do you capture something that you can only feel, not see? How do you photograph what’s so internal, it’s as tenuous as vapor… as fleeting as memory?
I find Reathel’s work wistful and haunting but also filled with a father’s love for his son. There is a lot of emotion in his work and you can sense some of what Griffin is feeling, in his own search for connection.
Reathel describes the experience of creating this photo collection he calls Waiting for Griffin.
Autism is a separation of experience, where one is unable to participate fully in our shared reality. My son Griffin is autistic. Much of our experience is fraught with difficulty punctuated by moments of intense emotion.
In these photographs I share what I see as a father of a little boy struggling with autism. These photographs are sometimes beautiful, often difficult and always true. Not only to the moment, but also to my hopes and fears for the future.
Each photograph is printed as a photogravure, a process that requires a high degree of physical manipulation. Each time I wipe the plate to remove the excess ink, I do so with a father’s hand.
As I work the plate, my son is revealed to me anew, beautiful and frightening in all his future possibilities. I see him for who he truly could be and I find myself waiting for Griffin.
His photos also give you the sense that Griffin is waiting too. Waiting to find peace, to find a way to make sense of the world. Reathel has found a way through his abstract images of Griffin to show something of his son’s struggle as well as his own.
I can’t say I know a lot about autism, but would like to talk a little more about Reathel’s images. Most of his work is not as distinct as the silhouette above – his photographs tend to be soft focus or hazy or a different kind of abstraction. But in the image above, the body language says so much. You can feel a sense of exhaustion, as if the weight of the world is on the little boy’s shoulders. There is also a deep feeling of separation – Reathel is using framing to separate Griffin from the rest of the world and exposure to separate him from us.
According to Reathel’s statement above, all of his work is real and not posed. There is a kind of watchful waiting one would have to go through to capture these little reflective moments. In that, there’s a close connection to the street photographers I wrote about in my previous posts on street style and the decisive moment. It’s about finding that instant when something larger is revealed, when you can find that facial expression, gesture or body language that reveals something deeper about the person caught in the lens.
This image is so evocative of Griffin’s autistic journey. The soft focus and grainy image make the photograph dreamlike and surreal as Griffin follows the white broken lines off to who knows where. This image seems to encapsulate all of Reathel’s fears for the future. And still, there is a quiet sense of watchfulness here too. You feel that someone is there in the background, tracking his son’s progress. Griffin’s body language shows he’s totally relaxed… maybe a little curious… moving forward. Yes, the picture is moody, but there’s something very recognizable there too. When I first gazed at it, I found myself smiling as I saw a curious child wondering what lays ahead. Then I realized he was carefully tracking the lines – that’s when I saw autism’s influence.
I find this image of Griffin and his mom very touching, especially after viewing all the other images of a boy so isolated and unhappy. There’s a peacefulness and sense of “normalcy” and it’s a relief to see the connection between two. Even though they both seem to be lost in their own worlds, they’re still together, holding hands at the beach. It’s the most hopeful image in the collection.
I find his work both moving and inspiring because Reathel has turned the challenge of parenting an autistic child into art. He’s captured Griffin’s spirt and his own connection to his son. I feel the work respects his son and treats him with a gentleness and love that’s very touching.
If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend Mark Haddon’s fictional portrayal of an autistic child’s effort to make sense of the world, The Curious Incident of The Dog in the Night-time.
What do you think? Do you like Reathel’s work? What do you see there? Let me know.