Photography class

I was re-reading my journal notes from 1992, at which time I took a photography class from Mary Ellen Mark. She is the photographer whose assignment to me was to spend 24 hours with my brother, Mike.  She seemed to think that Michael had a personality, after reviewing my work. This was a surprise to me, since I had not thought of my brother as having a personality at all. He is autistic, not verbal and, by virtue of the fact that he functions on a low level, others take care of his needs. My thought about Mike was he was totally motivated by food, and nothing else.

What is a personality, anyway?

Without getting technical I refer to Wikipedia for an informal definition of personality: “the particular combination of emotional, attitudinal and behavioral response patterns of an individual.”[1] Let me accept this definition for the sake of argument, and run down the list:

1)      Does Michael have emotional patterns? Unknown; on second thought, if there is no food, his reaction is predictable: he gets upset.

2)      Does Michael have attitudinal response patterns? It is hard to know Mike’s attitude about anything, other than his love for food, so I would have to say no to this point.

3)      Does Michael have behavioral response patterns? Mike’s behavior seems to be centered on acquisition and consumption of food.

With the above definition, Mike got 2 of 3 affirmatives. Was this the personality that Mary Ellen Mark was referring to? Did I reveal this about my brother?


What is not predictable about Michael is how to reach him or influence his emotional state through human contact. Sometimes he seems happy, and may even take someone’s hand with the intention of guiding it to hit his own chest – one if his ritual behaviors. He is usually smiling when he does this. What are the precursors to this? Unknown. There must be something internal that induces him to make contact in that way. I don’t think I caught any of this on film at that time.

Photographs lie

How could my photographs illustrate something that I could not see? I have had the opposite experience: seeing something in a photograph that was not there. I refer to early family photographs of Mike, where he looked so present that I could imagine talking with him. My mother told me that the photograph just caught that look for a fraction of a second, and didn’t really reveal what was happening. Conclusion? Photographs lie.

I use photography to learn about my subject. I try different angles, lighting, framing: anything I can think of. Inanimate objects are easier to explore than people. When people are aware of being photographed, the photographer influences the photograph. With Michael, there was no notion that he was aware of what I was doing. In some cases, I was trying to interact with him.

Photography is complicated. How does one tell the truth with a medium that lies?

three polaroids of Mike


Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: