Michael, My Older Brother

older autistic sibling

(This is a re-post from the ‘History’ section, where I discuss Depiction of the Mentally Ill)

Respectful portrayal of the handicapped is a question near and dear to my heart, since my older brother is profoundly retarded and autistic. Michael has never spoken and it was never obvious to me if he know who I was. One of his eyes focuses in one direction and one in another, like an out of control Marty Feldman.

Mike lived at home until I was ten years old. I remember home life as very chaotic. Michael would yell and hit himself and wander around. I always wanted to make contact with him, but it was impossible. I used to write my thoughts down, partly to help me think. My mother made arrangements to bring him to Willowbrook, a mental institution on Staten Island, NY when he was 14. She told me that he had his bar mitzvah there, but I don’ remember. My family and I used to visit him there. Michael lived there until it was closed (in the 1970s) after wide scale abuse was uncovered.

As a child, I always had an attraction to photography, and a good eye for taking photographs. There is a picture of me at about 8 years of age, with a brownie camera around my neck. I must have taken a lot of pictures then. Today I can only identify a few of the old family snaps as mine. Sometimes when I show the family pictures to people who never met Michael, they say, “He looks so normal. When did your parents know he was ill?” This is how I know photographs lie. He was never normal.

I studied photography seriously later in my life and began taking Michael’s photograph – with permission – at his 40th birthday party. I was taking a photography class at the time and thought I would use the opportunity to document a family occasion. It was the beginning of my long term project documenting Michael’s life.

The photographs I took at the start of the project have both the qualities of being detached and personal. Where was Michael? Who or what was he? Was I like him? Was he like me? How close could I get? If I got close enough with my camera, would I be able to discover something from that picture that I couldn’t see in real life? I included the rest of my family in the mix. How did having Michael as a family member shape us” I was searching for an inkling of closeness or recognition. I photographed Michael at his home, at day programs, at parties with friends and at the grocery store. I attended the periodic reviews held by his caregivers to discuss his medical, socialization status and progress toward personal goals.

Did I portray Michael respectfully? I had love for him as a family member and as a human being. But I also felt every emotion at times during the project. Beyond the most prevalent emotion of frustration, there was joy, surprise and even anger. My purpose in photographing him was to understand him and, in particular, my relationship with him. I believe that my images of him were respectful and that this is evident to the viewer

Future posts will include some of my photos.

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