Visible Spectrum: A Conversation with Mary Berridge, Photographer

"Grayson with his Sister." Autistic people often notice details and patterns that others do not. Their unusual perspectives can be highly creative and encourage new ways of looking at things. Businesses, and technology companies in particular, are starting to hire autistic people for their creative problem solving abilities, as well as their tendency to be skilled with computers. Photo by Mary Berridge.

ARTS & CULTURE

Mary Berridge is a Chapel Hill-based photographer whose work has been exhibited in many galleries and museums including the Museum of Modern Art in NY, the De Young Museum in San Francisco, the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, the Yale University Gallery of Art and the Princeton University Art Museum. She is interested in how people find meaning in challenging circumstances. Her newest book is Visible Spectrum: Portraits From the World of Autism. The Local Reporter’s Ray Eliot spoke with her recently about the inspiration and process for her new book, about photography, art, aesthetics, and activism. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of that conversation.

Ray

How did you get interested in photography?

Mary

I started in high school, actually. We had a darkroom in our high school, and I loved it. It was one of my favorite places to be. And then when I went to college, I continued with it. I was in an alternative liberal arts school where you could do a liberal arts major and have a studio art minor. So, I did that with literature as my major and photography as my minor. After college, I continued with it for a few years, working in photo labs, and then decided to get my MFA.

Ray 

Would you consider yourself a journalist or an art photographer?

Mary

I would say I’m a fine art photographer, but I often work in the context of a social issue.

Ray 

How do you determine your subject matter when you’re preparing for a project or an exhibition or a book?

Mary

Often the subject is somehow connected to my life, and I’m interested in social issues broadly.

Ray 

This book, Visible Spectrum, came about because your son was diagnosed on the autism spectrum, which brought you into contact with other neurodivergent individuals. Why was it important to document these individuals through photography?

Mary

I felt like there’s so much misinformation about autism. Autism is a much more complex and varied condition than most people understand. And because of this misinformation, there is a kind of fear around the subject that perpetuates stigma. Because of the stigma, people don’t want to talk about it. Parents, sometimes, don’t even want to tell anybody that their child is on the autism spectrum, if it’s not obvious. And that silence, in turn, perpetuates more misinformation and more stigma, and so on. There are so many myths out there, such as that all people with autism don’t want to be social, they don’t want to have friends, or they don’t have emotions and that’s not true. In fact, the reality is often exactly the opposite.

For me, photography is a way of making a reality visible, spurring people to think about something and maybe question their assumptions about it. I hope people will do that when they look at the photographs in this book, because they’ll find the photographs compelling, or maybe somewhat mysterious, and that will lead them to think, ‘Oh, gosh, I didn’t know a person with autism looked like that, or acted like that, or did that.’ And then they’ll feel compelled to read the stories and, I hope, begin to understand more about autism and become more accepting of autistic people.

Ray 

In this book, there are compelling photographs, which are beautifully laid out on the page. There is also writing at the beginning and, at the end, stories about the photographed individuals. That’s interesting to me because some photographers want the image to speak for itself. Is your integration of image and word related to the fact that you are dealing with people who are stigmatized and that presenting the image alone may foster misinterpretation?

Mary

Yes, I think that’s correct. Photographs are limited in the amount of information that they can convey. In this case, it was important to have the text. In my one of my other books, A Positive Life, about women with HIV, it was also important to have the text. In that case, the texts were direct quotes from interviews with the women in the photographs. In my Russia book, On the Eve, Moscow, 1998, I didn’t have any text beyond just an essay, but those pictures were street photographs about a particular time and place. They didn’t need that extra explanation.

I was trained, mostly, in the “a picture should stand alone” school of thought, and I certainly understand that perspective. I think sometimes that’s the way to go. I did end up separating the text and the pictures in this new book. That was partly a design issue. Initially, I was going to have the narratives with each picture, but that made the design of the book extremely limited and repetitive. I couldn’t have two pictures on the same spread. Also, viewing the text together with the picture might limit your experience of the picture.

Ray 

How do you negotiate the risk of exploitation?

Mary

It was important to me to portray the subjects with dignity. I didn’t want to portray them in a negative or condescending way. I think photographers have a lot of power in the way that they portray people. I try to be very cognizant of that, and not take advantage of it. In this book, I think that the people are represented as individuals.

I wanted the pictures to somehow reflect autism in the sense that people on the spectrum do tend to have rich internal lives and sometimes appear as though they’re not engaged with the world around them. They do spend more time in their heads than neurotypical people. However, the photos also show them interacting with family members and doing all sorts of things in their lives and not just living in sad isolation.

Ray 

How do you build relationships with your subjects?

Mary

Autism is a huge part of my life. Since my son was diagnosed, I started going to these coffee support groups. Eventually, I made friends with a number of families. I have been on the board of the local chapter of the Autism Society in North Carolina for many years. I also am a member of the Special Needs Advisory Council for the CHCCS school district. So, a lot of these people were my friends, or friends of my friends. Sometimes I would advertise locally and say, I’m doing this project, I’ll give you free photos if you want to participate. While I didn’t know everyone in the book, there was usually some sort of connection there, either through friends or local organizations.

Ray 

What is your process for choosing an image to capture? For example, how did the photos of Remington (page 35) and Jesse (page 36) at Jordan Lake School of the Arts come about?

“Remington.” Remington says autism has augmented his ability to “be creative and stay focused.” Photo by Mary Berridge.

Mary

At the school, I was able to just hang out like a fly on the wall for many days. That was fantastic. With Remington, we set up the shoot. I went to his apartment, and he’s a very passionate musician. That’s his favorite thing. He had many electric guitars on his wall and that Christmas tree. We tried a few different shots of him sitting in the living room, and then he asked if I wanted him to play his guitar. With autistic people, a picture of them posing and looking at the camera is not going to look natural at all, because how to smile, or look at a camera or pose is a learned social thing that people do and that’s definitely an area of deficit for autistic people. So, he wanted to play the guitar and his guitar room had the best light. You could see the Christmas tree through the door, which was awesome for a photographer. I think I might have had to position his chair a little bit, so it would be in the light and then I could also get the tree through the door in the shot. The photo, though, is very much true to who he is.

Ray

In the preface to the book there’s a discussion of two brothers, Evan and Eric. In the photo (page 22), one of them seems to be looking at you and the other one is staring off into the distance. After reading the preface, I looked back through the pictures and took note of what each subject was attending to. Are they relating to others? Are they relating to their own inner space? Does the context that they’re in create a tension between focusing inward and outward?

Mary

I really liked what Margaret Sartor wrote in the preface about her close friend who was recently diagnosed with autism and who said, ‘What I see these people doing is experiencing things deeply. I think these people have rich internal lives.’ I really liked that this observation came from an autistic person.

“Evan and Eric at the Dance.” At their first dance, Evan and Eric mingled somewhat on the edge of the crowd, occasionally pausing to make pit stops in the fireplace. Photo by Mary Berridge.

Ray 

In the preface, Margaret also talks about the job of the artist being to bring order out of chaos. How do you feel your own work achieves this?

Mary

My pictures are very ordered in a way. They’re very formal in terms of the composition, they’re very still.  I think that in order to capture the chaos in a photograph, you need to have some order. Visually, it has to be compelling. That is achieved through form and content, possibly. 

Ray 

Some of your photographs really focus on the people, and some photos focus on the person’s relationship to their environment.

Mary

I have to deal with the environment as it is. I have to somehow make a good picture, which is hard. I must be in the moment and do whatever I can. Often the environments weren’t particularly striking because they were mostly at home, so they were in a backyard or a living room. It can be hard to make a good picture in such a regular everyday place. So, in that scenario, the photo becomes more about the subject’s expression, or a gesture, or an interaction.

Ray 

You said, “it’s hard to make a good picture.” What makes it difficult?

Mary

There’s the craft, of course, which in photography is very technical, unfortunately. Beyond that, there are the formal elements. Is it strong visually? It’s hard to make a picture strong visually. You have to know what you’re doing. You have to be able to respond in the moment to whatever is in front of you, or take whatever’s in front of you, and somehow order it in a way that’s visually compelling.

If you’re photographing a person, the person somehow needs to be doing something or appearing in some way that’s compelling. And that must align with your overall message, and with the content that you’re working with. But you don’t want to reduce it so much that it becomes a stereotype, or just the same thing over and over. You want to have some different moods, different gestures. You want to keep variety, but you also want to have a strong point of view and have what you’re trying to say come through in a way that’s powerful. It’s that dance between trying to express a point of view but trying to do so in a way that is expansive and that gets people to really think instead of hitting them over the head with your message.

“Joe.” Joe tries out an ambulance at a community event meant to familiarize autistic people with first responders. Photo by Mary Berridge.

Ray 

In one of the stories in the book a young man, Joe (page 70), is sitting in an ambulance during a community outreach activity. His mother wrote about how really frustrating it was to have spent 14-15 years of effort to try to have him placed on a state registry for assistance. The amount of work one has to do over the years to advocate for just the simplest amount of social support for a child, so they can have some sort of dignity in their life, just really struck me. I thought, God, this is so maddening.

Mary

It is, it is. With autism, there’s been a lot of focus on the early interventions, which are super important, but at the same time, once these kids become adults, the services just disappear. The parents refer to it as “the cliff,” when their kid turns 18, or 21. ‘We’re going over the cliff.’ They have to beg and plead to get government services. It’s so frustrating.

Ray 

Can you talk a little bit about the organizations that you work with and what you feel needs to be recognized and how people can continue to expand their understanding of autism?

Mary

Chapel Hill is actually a very strong area in terms of autism research and services. I’ve been on the board of the local chapter of the Autism Society of North Carolina, and they are a wonderful organization. They have chapters all over the state, and they really focus on helping individuals and families, supporting them with all sorts of classes and workshops and clinical services. They have an unbelievably fantastic camp in Pittsboro called Camp Royall, which might be the first sleepaway camp of its kind. They take the highest-need autistic individuals for a week and give those kids a chance to go to camp. In the local chapter, a lot of what we do is plan monthly events for families and individuals. Those include things like support groups, bowling, holiday parties, music therapy and  many other things. We used to give informational talks, however, there already are a ton of talks like that happening in this area because of TEACCH, and now the relatively new Duke Center for Autism and Brain Development.  The Carolina Institute for Developmental Disabilities is another excellent resource in Chapel Hill.

TEACCH is a world-renowned program for teaching autistic people. It’s the most established way of teaching autistic students in schools. It’s based on structure. It’s called structured teaching. It is UNC-affiliated, and they have lots of workshops and support groups, both for people on the spectrum and for their families. They do tons of research, offer lots of clinical services and therapies and all sorts of things. The Duke Center for Autism and Brain Development has only been around for a few years, and it’s also amazing. They have Geraldine Dawson, one of the world’s foremost autism researchers, leading it. They offer many clinical and other support services.

I’m also on the CHCCS Special Needs Advisory Council, and that’s made up of district parents, staff and community professionals who are working towards the continual improvement of Exceptional Children’s services, which is what they call special education now. That is a very interesting, often frustrating, thing to be involved with because the schools are such an enormous bureaucracy. It takes so long to get anything done. I would say this school system has a mixed record for special education, though I think, compared to a lot of other places in the state, it’s certainly better. They have autism specialists, for example, whereas most schools don’t have that. However, they don’t have very many autism specialists. So, it’s all relative, and there’s certainly a lot of room for improvement. It’s all about resources. Everybody needs something, and the schools have a set budget, and there is a very dire shortage of specialized teachers.

Ray 

The book is also part of a larger advocacy effort to make autism more visible, to bring it out of the shadows and normalize it.

Mary

Yes. April is autism awareness month, and I will be doing a talk on the book through the Autism Society. We don’t know exactly where that will be, or the details yet, but that’s the sort of thing I hope to do a lot of. One of the things that I really hope comes out of it is that I think that there are many more people on the spectrum than people realize, and that often those people don’t know it themselves, and their family members don’t know it. The last prevalence study, in 2018, found that 1 in 44 children are autistic, yet many don’t get the help they need.

Many autistic people are so-called “high functioning,” though we now prefer the term “low support needs,” because “high functioning” is a very relative term. Some people who may appear high functioning struggle quite a bit in some ways and need accommodations. I think there are a lot of people who might have low or medium support needs and yet, because the portrayal of autism in the movie Rain Man is such an entrenched stereotype, nobody thinks of those who do not fit the stereotype as being on the spectrum, and they themselves don’t even know.

Ray 

How do you relate, as a photographer and an artist, to this advocacy work on behalf of individuals with autism?

Mary

For me personally, the aesthetics that I respond to are very tied to emotions and psychology. The pictures I respond to most have an emotional or psychological resonance, and that doesn’t always even necessarily have to be a person. It could be a landscape, or a still life. Somehow, though, it has to make me feel something, take me back a little bit, surprise me, or puzzle me. It should show me something I’m interested in but that I don’t entirely understand, so I am compelled to think about it more. It should make me think of bigger issues, philosophical issues, emotional issues, political issues. That’s what I respond to in art, and I think that’s why art exists.

Ray

For example, the photo of Mia with the pickaxe (page 31).

“Mia with Mattock.” Most people on the autism spectrum experience high levels of anxiety due to sensory sensitivities, difficulties with communication, and lack of social understanding. Mia, who is comforted by the feel of rubber, fur and the motions of swinging a mattock, is wearing what. she calls her “life suit,” which she puts on “when life gets to be too much.” In addition to liking technology and golf, she wants to be a model and a scientist, “maybe the kind that wears a hazmat suit.” Photo by Mary Berridge.

Mary

I love her smile, you know, it’s so gentle. And the way she’s hugging the axe is so gentle. The contrast between the typical function of an axe and what she’s doing with it is so interesting. That, to me, says so much about autism, because it’s all about seeing things in a different way. I not only want to make the world a kinder place for autistic people, but I also just find them totally fascinating. I think that their different way of seeing the world can be really creative and can open us up to new ways of seeing things.


Ray Eliot is a choreographer and dance educator who divides his time between Chapel Hill and Cholula, Mexico.

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1 Comment on "Visible Spectrum: A Conversation with Mary Berridge, Photographer"

  1. This is such fine documentary photojournalism, informed by empathy and compassion for the human condition. You can’t look away. Nor should you. Her photographs command that you, in the words of Nat Geo’s Zen photo-master Sam Abel, “stay, this moment.”

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