Photography as seen by the autistic

It's the type of photograph you would see hanging in a gallery in Toronto's Queen Street: a Godzilla figurine overshadowing a red, plastic ketchup bottle with a gritty street scene as a backdrop.

It’s the type of photograph you would see hanging in a gallery in Toronto’s Queen Street: a Godzilla figurine overshadowing a red, plastic ketchup bottle with a gritty street scene as a backdrop.

It is slightly ironic, a little absurd and has enough real or perceived political overtones to make the work fall neatly in line with the type of work that pops up in small, contemporary galleries.

The truth is that the photographer behind the lens was a 19-year-old who had hardly any photographic experience at all. He just happened to have a fascination with Godzilla and a unique perspective on his surroundings, thanks in part, to autism.

Cole Robinson-Boivin’s body of Godzilla-inspired work will show at the Yukon Arts Centre for the month of October, alongside photos taken by other youth living with autism, some as young as five. Under the guidance of photographer Ian Stewart, the youth spent an afternoon in September burning through thousands of photos of buildings and people on Main Street.

There are close-up shots of man-hole covers, fire hydrants, graffiti and passing cars. And there’s an attention to detail and patterns on the sidewalk surface in many of the photos. The point of view of the photographer is taken from different angles. In some photos, it is from a metre off the ground or, in one case, the photographer is lying on the sidewalk with

his feet clearly in the foreground.

There is a series of photos in the exhibit taken by nine-year-old Darby McIntyre, who was fascinated by the abandoned Dairy Queen building on Second Ave. One photo focuses on the bright, crimson door of the now-defunct restaurant while another captures the inside of the dusty, empty dining space that was, at one time, packed with families and young children.

“What I think was most interesting was what the kids chose to focus on and not necessarily the end photo they came up with,” said Stewart.

He flipped through a series of shots taken by six-year-old Malcolm Robertson.

Robertson documented a large red and white sign outside the Toyota dealership on Main Street in distinct chunks. Together, the photos create a whole sign, but on their own, they are just fragments of a larger picture.

“People with autism see the world in small pieces and then put it all together, whereas you or I might see the same thing in one general view,” said Julie Robinson, of Autism Yukon, who is also Cole’s mother.

The exhibit, Talking in Pictures, was organized by Autism Yukon to celebrate Autism Awareness Month.

“We want to open up people’s ideas of what youth living with autism are capable of,” said Robinson.

“These kids are profoundly unique and gifted at the same time.”

Using the exhibit as a starting point for conversation on autism, Robinson hopes common stereotypes about the disability will be broken down.

It’s also an opportunity to turn away from the non-profit’s usual line of work: policymaking.

“We spend so much time trudging away trying to explain the disability,” she said. “Art is a fabulous way of discussing and of bringing it up in a community that hasn’t or doesn’t want to talk about it.”

Sixteen years ago, when Cole was diagnosed, only one in 10,000 people had autism.

That number has now jumped to one in 100, according to statistics recently released by the US Department of Health and Human Services.

“It’s the number one

developmental disability in the world right now,” Robinson pointed out.

And it currently has no known cure or cause.

Although symptoms may vary, a common feature shared by those who have autism is a difficulty in communicating and interacting in social situations.

“Taking in verbal information is challenging (for people with autism),” said Andrea Sharpe, a Vancouver behavioural consultant who works with autistic youth in the Yukon and helped organize the Talking in Pictures show.

“It may be easier for them to demonstrate something through pictures rather than using verbal interactions.”

Looking at the photos taken by the youth, it is clear there is a story rippling beneath the photos.

Aside from the unique angles and minute attention to detail, there is evidence of a very distinct perspective on the world.

“They’re surprisingly beautiful photos, and not just because of their quirkiness,” said Robinson.

The more than 50 photos on display at the exhibit will be on sale through a silent auction. And if there is a large expression of interest in buying some of the works then prints of the photos will be made, she said.

Whether the youth will continue using a camera to express themselves remains to be seen.

Less than a month after his photo spree on Main Street, Cole already doesn’t think much of photography.

When asked whether he plans to pursue it in the future, he answers directly and matter-of-factly – a signature behaviour for those who have autism -“no.”

He’d rather focus his energy on the other forms of art that he already dabbles in: pencil drawings and digitally manipulated images that he uses to create an alternate “elf world” inspired by anime and video games.

“But who knows, he may pick it up again,” said Robinson.

Talking in Pictures opens at the Yukon Arts Centre Friday, 7 p.m. and runs throughout the month of October

Contact Vivian Belik at

vbelik@yukon-news.com