My search to understand my older brother, Michael, who is autistic, very low functioning, and nonverbal has led me in many different directions. I have read about epistemology, the study of what is knowable; theories of consciousness; anatomy of the brain; principles of neuropsychiatry to get some idea of what could be going on in his head.
The most fruitful endeavor however was of a more personal nature. I spent time with Michael, trying to interact. Since he is restless and inattentive, it is difficult to know what is happening at the moment. Photography is the perfect medium to capture moments with him and analyze them later. I sought guidance by taking classes from photographers with experience constructing visual essays. Mary Ellen Mark, acclaimed photojournalist, proposed that I spend 24 hours with Mike in order to better understand his routine. I visited Mike at his group home to document some missing details of his daily life. I wrote about the balance of privacy and the need to capture certain moments to tell a story, in my post entitled ‘Lessons’.
The following is from my journal and describes my time documenting Mike at his day program for my assignment:
May 12, 1992
Arrived at the day school 8:55 AM. Didn’t run into any problems. I photographed Mike getting off the bus and in some of his daily activities. B__ is his teacher and P__ is the assistant.
Mike is in one of the lowest functional groups. B__ is so very proud of them. Today Mike put pennies into a can for the first time. He looked genuinely pleased at doing that.
L__ is in his class. He’s a wreck: at Willowbrook since he was 5 years old. Was verbal before he went in. Now he’s not. Slow moving M__ is there. She looks the same as she did when I last visited. S__ and V__ are also in the class. V__ looks like he had his ear cut off and grafted back on wrong: scary looking dude, and strong.
At times it was utterly revolting. Disgusting. L__ is legally blind and, according to B__, has a heightened sense of smell. He likes to smell everyone. He smelled my bald spot and my clothes. I was a little concerned, as the staff all wore latex gloves and oozy stickiness was everywhere. L__ also came up with a hand full of shit toward the early part of my visit. He and P__ disappeared for a while. He was clean when he got back.
I spent from 9:00 AM to 3:30PM there: six and a half hours. I was at Mike’s residence from 3:00PM to 9:00PM: six hours. Almost exactly half the time I was supposed to have been there.
I did learn some things. The shower and his getting ready for bed were very difficult to photograph. I saw much more than I photographed and was surprised by how few pictures I had taken. I may also have taken much of the same type of picture that I had before. Oh well, film is cheap (?).
May 14, 1992
One of my reactions to going to see Mike was a kind of anger; anger at getting psyched up by the photo class. Being convinced that there is something, some communication between my brother and me and finding the thin brick wall again. It was tough going to his school: feeling out of place; taking pictures and being uncomfortable about it; feeling unable to communicate.
The pictures lied. Out of thousands of pictures, I chose 50 that portrayed some kind of relationship between my brother and me. I didn’t recognize truth in any of those pictures.