Hidden Light: The Visual Language of an Autistic Photographer

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Magnuson Park, Seattle, February 10

Magnuson Park, Seattle, February 10

The playful symmetry of fin-shaped sculptures on grass. Sun bright on ivory petals framed in blue water and sky, or exploding through a lacy armature of branches. Seattle-based photographer Forrest Sargent says that he uses his camera to uncover the “hidden light” in things.

Meanwhile Sargent, who is just 20 years old, shines his own hidden light through these haunting images. Strappingly handsome, six foot two, and profoundly autistic, he is unable to speak in the usual way. When he tries, he utters a cacophony of sounds that have clear meaning to him but to no one else. Until just a couple of years ago, even Sargent’s parents were unsure how much was going on inside the mind of their son.

It turned out to be a lot.

Buddha, Flower World, Maltby WA

Buddha, Flower World, Maltby WA

Sargent was born in Tokyo. When he turned two, his mother and father — Denny, a linguist and college professor, and Rebecca, an artist — brought him to Korea on vacation. After seeing the child run into a temple, clap his hands, and bow before an altar, a priest told his parents that their son was a reincarnated Buddhist, and presented them with a set of beads to give him when he got older.

A few months later, however, Sargent abruptly withdrew into himself and began throwing tantrums that terrified his parents. A pediatrician blamed his condition on Rebecca, accusing her of being a “refrigerator mother” — a cruel reference to Bruno Bettelheim’s thoroughly debunked theory of autism being caused by emotionally distant parenting. A specialist confirmed the pediatrician’s diagnosis of autism, and a long and difficult journey began for both the boy and his parents.

Karen and Robert's Farm, Forrest's birthday, 2010

Karen and Robert's Farm, Forrest's birthday, 2010

Denny and Rebecca tried everything to help their son, from a smorgasbord of psychiatric drugs to homeopathy, hydrotherapy, and blessings from a Tibetan priest. The only thing that seemed to cool his rages was a gluten-free and casein-free diet. But even that stopped working once the storms of puberty hit.

Sargent would become so angry — biting and scratching anyone in reach — that he left a patchwork of scars on his father’s body and sent his mother to the emergency room. Denny and Rebecca tried to keep their son at home while they sought various forms of support, but they found themselves overwhelmed.

“We were completely heartbroken, but we could no longer keep Forrest here,” Denny says. “He had basically destroyed our house.”

After a long search, the couple found a place for their son in a group home in Seattle. But then the home was shut down when some neighbors protested that they didn’t want a facility like that in their backyard. For years, Sargent bounced from one institution to another, on an ever-changing roller-coaster of meds that made him even more unstable.

One night a couple of years ago, attendants at another group home phoned 911, strapped Sargent to a gurney, and dispatched him to a psychiatric hospital catering to older homeless alcoholics, where he was locked in a padded cell.

“Forrest was in hell,” says Denny. “We went to the hospital and they told us, ‘We don’t know autism.’”

Volunteer Park, February 2011

Volunteer Park, February 2011

Luckily, by that point, Denny and Rebecca had found a way to communicate with their son. They went to Texas to learn a technique for teaching non-verbal autistic kids how to form words by pointing to a letterboard, known as the Rapid Prompting Method. RPM was developed by the mother of a witty non-verbal young man named Tito Mukhopadhyay, who is now the author of books like The Mind Tree and How Can I Talk If My Lips Don’t Move?

The method is controversial. Critics point out that RPM is expensive and lacks independent verification of efficacy. But Denny believes it was a breakthrough for his son. “For the first time in his life,” he recalls, “Forrest was able to articulate a preference to us beyond ‘juice’ and ‘peepee.’”

And what his son wanted was a camera.

Richmond Beach cliff walk, March 2010

Richmond Beach cliff walk, March 2010

Sargent enjoyed hiking in the mountains and parks of the Pacific Northwest. But with his digital Nikon, he could show other people what delights him, what catches his eye, and what he thinks is beautiful. The result is a torrent of marvelous, quirky, vivid, poignant images that offer a view of the world that “neurotypicals” rarely get to see — a non-verbal autistic mind from the inside, looking out.

Forrest Sargent on a horse

Forrest Sargent (photo by Denny Sargent)

Like Temple Grandin, the subject of a recent, deservedly acclaimed HBO biopic starring Clare Danes, Sargent is biophilic: he makes deep connections with animals, like the horses that stare insouciantly into the human world in his photos. Defying the stereotype of autistic people as uninterested in relationships, one of the first things he told his parents with the letterboard is that he wishes he had a girlfriend.

“Forrest said ‘I have no friends,’” Denny recalls. “He said, ‘No one trusts me, and I don’t trust anybody else.’ I told him it was because of the rages. He asked his psychologist, ‘Am I crazy?’”

Forrest and Denny Sargent doing RPM

Forrest and Denny Sargent doing RPM with a letterboard

As Sargent has garnered praise for his photography —  recently exhibited at an art gallery in Olympia, Washington, which earned him local TV coverage — his confidence and sense of connection with other people have grown. For Christmas, his parents got him a smaller Canon that’s easier to hold than the sturdy Nikon.

Magnuson Park, Seattle, February, 2010

Magnuson Park, Seattle, February, 2010

I interviewed Sargent using the letterboard and RPM with his father.

Steve Silberman: What do you enjoy most about photography?

Forrest Sargent: I love showing the truth of all things.

Silberman: How does taking photographs show the truth of things?

Sargent: It reveals the hidden light of life.

Twin Ponds

Twin Ponds

Silberman: What makes you really happy?

Sargent: It makes me feel happy when people see my true self and not just my autism.

Silberman: What do you want to be when you get older?

Sargent: I am a photographer. I love it and want to make money doing it.

Horse, Karen and Robert's farm

Horse, Karen and Robert's farm, Forrest's birthday 2010

Silberman: What frustrates you?

Sargent: I am frustrated about my body. It isn’t able to do everything.

Silberman: If you could tell the world something about yourself, what would that be?

Sargent: I am smart and have a lot to say.

Flower World, Maltby WA

Flower World, Maltby WA

The letterboard has enabled Sargent and his parents to have exchanges about many aspects of his life that were impossible to talk about before, including the boy’s perceptions of his own language. When Denny played his son the audio file of his speaking voice, Sargent reached for the letterboard.

Forrest: I am surprised at how I sound.

Denny: Why?

Forrest: Because I think I am talking.

Denny: What do you you think you are saying?

Forrest: I’m trying to say something important.

Magnuson Park, February 2010

Magnuson Park, February 2010

Denny: (listening to the MP3) What does tobeese, tobeese mean?

Forrest: It means I want.

Denny: OK, what does modee modee! mean?

Forrest: It means I am mad.

Denny: What does kooee kooee! mean?

Forrest: I am glad.

Karen and Robert's Farm, Forrest's birthday, 2010

Karen and Robert's Farm, Forrest's birthday, 2010

Denny: What does it mean when you blow out rapidly (hshhh hshhh)?

Forrest: It means hurry up.

Denny: So what do you think about all this?

Forrest: It means I can understand you but you can’t understand me.

Vivi and Madi, April 2010

Forrest's cousin Vivian and a friend, Madi, April 2010

Though Sargent seems calmer these days — which Denny attributes to his photography, the letterboard, a finely-tuned combination of drugs (including lithium, Depakote, and Risperdal), and his current residency in a progressive center for the disabled called Fircrest — the family’s odyssey is far from over. Now that their son has turned 20, Denny and Rebecca are discovering that even many of the barely adequate support systems in place for the families of autistic kids evaporate when they become young adults.

Richmond Beach, February 2010

Richmond Beach, February 2010

But at least now instead of sorting spoons — one of the mindless activities used to occupy the residents of one of the facilities where Sargent lived for a while — he can sift through the beauty of his own making, seeking images that reveal the truth of all things.

University of Washington Arboretum, March 2010

University of Washington Arboretum, March 2010

[Note: All photographs by Forrest Sargent unless otherwise specified, used with the permission of Denny Sargent. Images are available for sale at the Sargents' website.]

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