#SHEHEARTSFILM Female in Focus - Alex Heron
I am absolutely loving the Female in Focus series so far as part of our #Sheheartsfilm initiative. I hope it is providing you all with some inspiration to get out with your camera and an insight into how many talented ladies there are in the film community!
For this blog I shall be talking to Alex, a UK based photographer about her body of work titled Breadth: Spanning the Spectrum. It documents the lives of those on the autistic spectrum. It is deeply personal work and a very important project that aims to change the perception of what it means to be living with autism.
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Introduce yourself! How did you first get into film photography?
Hello! My name is Alex - I’m an autistic, 24 year old analogue photographer based in Knaresborough, North Yorkshire. I studied philosophy at university and graduated in 2019, before doing an MA in Visual Communication. After graduating, I started taking photography more seriously; I had always enjoyed photography and took it as a subject for both GCSE and A-Level, but I didn’t really start thinking about it as a potential career path until I was doing my masters and used a lot of the skills I had previously learnt to create ad campaigns etc, which really reignited my love for photography in general.
In September 2020 I started shooting film; my grandad had always been a keen hobbyist photographer, and when he died, I inherited his OM10. I was so adamant that I didn’t want his camera to become an ornament, so I promised myself and him that I’d learn to use it so I could feel the same joy and passion his camera gave him.
Prior to this, I had only ever experienced digital photography (aside from the disposable cameras my mum would send with me on school trips as a kid), so I booked myself onto a film photography and darkroom course at Hopewell Studios in Knaresborough.
It was there that I really discovered the magic of film! I didn’t even know how to open the camera, so when my tutor, Edward Webster ( a true master photographer) opened the back, I was surprised to find an undeveloped film in there! I took it straight to the lab and it was pretty emotional to find the pictures my grandad had taken in and around his care home just a week or so before he died - it felt almost like a letter to me and really solidified my love for film. My tutor at Hopewell, Ed, specialises in historic processes, so continuously learning from him has truly allowed me to appreciate the artistry and labour of love that goes into film - I’ve been hooked ever since!
Thomas, Portra 400
Thomas was one of the first people I had the honour of photographing, he was an amazing subject, and the bond he shares with his sister Isabella is so beautiful to see.
‘My happy place is anywhere with my sister because we make each other laugh’ - Thomas
What cameras and films do you typically shoot with?
My grandad’s Olympus OM10 will always be my most precious and favourite camera, and I take it with me to every single shoot! I switch between the 50mm lens (best all-round lens ever in my opinion) and the 135 for portraits. I have yet to go to a shoot and not get at least a couple of shots on my OM10, it kind of feels like I’m including my grandad in what I do. In January 2021, I entered the world of medium format and bought a Pentax 6x7. I really fell in love with the quality that medium format affords and the beautiful sound of the shutter firing (still makes me smile every time). In May 2021, I finally bought an RZ67 with the 110 lens (it had been a goal of mine for a while). I truly love using the RZ for close-up portraits and find its actually a great camera to start the shoot with as it looks pretty unusual to most people - so I show it to people and let them hold it etc as it serves as a great conversation starter and allows people to feel more comfortable and relaxed. I tend to switch between the Pentax and the RZ depending on the lighting conditions as the Pentax goes up to 1/1000 sec whereas the RZ only goes up to 1/400! I also use a sekonic flashmate to meter and I find it to be super accurate.
Tell us about the Breadth project
Breadth: Spanning the Spectrum is an intensely personal, on-going, long-term project, documenting the lives of those on the autistic spectrum. Being autistic myself, I am so fiercely passionate about this subject, and have long felt that the static perception of what it means to be autistic is often damaging to autistic people. It seems that in the mainstream media, autism is portrayed as extreme stereotypes, which has shaped a global perception of what autism looks like, but actually, autism manifests in an infinite number of ways.
After graduating with my masters degree, I started applying for jobs, and found myself very hesitant to disclose my autism on any job applications, due to anxiety surrounding potential employers imagining me to act a certain way, or placing perceived limitations on my abilities/skillset. I realised that essentially all of the media discourse I had been exposed to presented autism exclusively as extreme stereotypes - such as Rain Man. When I was younger, this caused a lot of identity issues for me - I always felt like I wasn’t ‘normal’ enough to be accepted by my neurotypical peers, but I also wasn’t ‘autistic’ enough to be accepted by my autistic peers either. This left me in a vat of invisibility, which continued into my early adult years.
The current media manufactured stereotypes of autism currently educate the wider public on how autism manifests, creating a very limited view on what autism really is. In reality, there are so many autistic people in this world, living fulfilling lives, with thriving relationships and amazing achievements. Autistic people come from all walks of life, and autism manifests in a truly infinite number of ways.
I wanted to start this project - which captures honest portraits alongside autistic people’s stories to widen the perspectives of schools, organisations, workplaces, and general society’s view on ASD, in an attempt to aid in creating a future of autism acceptance. I hope that the project will both celebrate and provide a platform for autistic individuals to tell their stories, and for people to emotionally connect through their portraits.
I take the participants' portraits in a setting that means something personally to them, so either their favourite place, their home, their workplace - anywhere they feel says something about their life or is significant to them. I really want people to get to know them through their images and connect on a personal level. I also want to make sure that the portraits tell their story, and are totally honest - as honesty is integral to the fundamental core of the project. The participants also provide a hand written note, which is presented alongside the portraits as I think that people’s handwriting is another way for people to gain an intimate and personal insight into people’s lives, almost like reading a diary - so that people feel connected to the subject’s on a deeper level. This is so important, as its about getting to know the people behind the autism label!
After deciding I was going to create the project, I was really struggling to come up with a name that captured exactly what I was trying to achieve. So, I spoke to my immensely talented friend Sam Jaques, who studied creative writing at university, and he came up with the name. As soon as I heard it, I know it was perfect; the project aims to really show the sheer breadth of the spectrum, and provide visibility to autistic individuals that don’t fit the media stereotypes.
Hendrix, Portra 400
I really enjoyed photographing and meeting Hendrix; I related to many of his experiences, especially regarding school so much. He is super kind and is also interested in photography, which I could definitely talk about all day! He even let me have a go on his electric scooter!
‘going on the swing makes me feel happy’ - Hendrix
What do you think the biggest misconception about autism is?
Autism is plagued by misconceptions - largely due to the autism character created by mainstream media. I wrote a bit about the misconceptions surrounding autism, which was actually the driving force behind the project in my own story - Since disclosing my autism diagnosis to people when I started university, I often found myself encountering remarks such as ‘you don’t seem autistic’, ‘I'd never have guessed’, ‘you don’t like like someone with autism’, but what does autism look like? What does autism act like? I think this notion was key in my late diagnosis - I didn’t fit the pervasive and often damaging stereotypes of the autism narrative perpetuated in the mainstream media; I’m not Rain Man, I’m not a savant with an incredible mathematic ability, nor am I someone that requires lifelong care or assistance - and the problem with the exclusivity of these stereotypes is that when we don’t fulfil them, nobody sees us. As a confused, ‘volatile’ kid, I fell through the vacuum of space between these opposing cliches, into an isolating space of invisibility, where the perpetual companionship of isolation as a confused teenager in a world built for the neurotypical mind, rendered me as one of the greatest social disappearing acts the universe had ever witnessed.
"Contrary to popular belief, autism isn’t a linear scale from mildly autistic to very autistic, its more like a kaleidoscope of fluid colours."
The problem with isolation is that the closer and more familiar it becomes, the further away everything else seems, and when you’re treated as invisible for long enough, you also, start to lose sight of yourself. Contrary to popular belief, autism isn’t a linear scale from mildly autistic to very autistic, its more like a kaleidoscope of fluid colours. I'm often told that I must be ‘mildly autistic’ but in fact, this just means that the world experiences me as mild; the life I experience has never felt mild to me. Despite the struggles associated with being autistic, autistic people aren’t broken or defective, we don’t endure suffering because of our autism, we endure suffering from the way in which the world treats and receives our autism. The kaleidoscope constellation of my diagnosis is an intrinsic part of me, and although autism has undoubtedly come with its own struggles, it also has enabled me to possess a unique strength, passion and focus. I have the ability to dedicate myself passionately to a subject, and express a pure enthusiasm that I have only ever witnessed elsewhere in my autistic peers. I have been autistic my entire life, not just since my diagnosis at age 16, and as I think about the invisible girl I was, lost between the vacuum of savants and the neurotypical, I feel an intense desire to expand the minds of what people think it means to be autistic, and reveal the true breadth of the spectrum, so that one day, the gap into the invisible will be eliminated and the stigmatisations silenced. ‘Spanning the Spectrum’ will celebrate our diverse differences and strengths, and provide VISIBILITY to our (past, present and future) autistic peers.
In addition to the damage that static stereotypes do to autistic identities, the biggest misconception surrounding autism I have continually come across is definitely the false notion that autistic people lack empathy or emotional intuition. In my experience, autistic people are some of the most empathetic people I have ever met. In my own case, I would whole heartedly describe myself as an empath, to the point that I take on others emotion as my own for extended periods of time. Through the project, I have met some extremely emotionally observant and intuitive autistic people, especially a young girl (age 6) I photographed named Poppy. She is extremely emotionally aware and picked up on my anxious energy straight away and made huge efforts to soothe my anxious energy.
How has working with film helped you with the topic you’re capturing? Do you think the project would be different if it was taken on digital cameras for example?
Capturing the project portraits on film was a conscious decision; not only do I enjoy the process and labour of love that film requires (side from the expense), I think that using film has been essential to the authenticity, honesty, and vulnerability of the project. Shooting film has resulted in extremely honest portraits in that they cannot be seen straight away, so the shoots become less about the images and more about an honest connection and storytelling, and there is less tendency to digitally post-process film scans in the same way as digital images, and it therefore, I think, provides an authenticity that can’t always be captured through digital means.
For autistic people, the world is a pretty overwhelming place at times; everything is instant, everything is rushed, busy and loud - film slows that process down. Most autistic people have an ability to intensely focus - I find that the slow and considered process of film allows me to block out the overwhelming anxiety of background noise, meeting new people and going to new places, and gives me both something to talk about and something to direct my anxious energy towards. Aside from the practical advantages of using film to shoot the project (aside from the crippling expense), I just love the way images it produces. It's magic every time for me.
What have you learned from your breadth series and what do you hope it will teach others?
I think the biggest lessons I have learned from the project so far have been about myself; honestly, it’s the first time in my life I’ve ever actually felt properly proud of myself. I look at the confused and anxious kid I was and realise how far I have really come. I’m still definitely confused and anxious, but I have constantly pushed myself out of my comfort zone - I get so much anxiety meeting new people, and this project has really forced me to do that, and I’ve learnt its not always as scary as I thought. My mum has helped me a lot, and I think she has found it comforting to meet other mums of autistic individuals as she relates so much to their experiences. My mum has always been my biggest advocate, and is the only person in the world that has ever truly understood me. She accompanies me to all of my shoots as a general photography butler/bag carrier and helps if things don’t quite go to plan (which happens quite a lot when shooting film!).
Another thing I have definitely learnt is that people are actually just so cool! Through the project, I have met some of the coolest, most inspiring people ever, that have overcome immense adversity and have gone on to achieve such amazing things. It has been so humbling, every day we are surrounded by such amazing people, with super inspiring stories, and my camera has acted as a vehicle to allow me to hear their stories. Wherever we go, we are surrounded by such fantastic people, this project has highlighted to me, the need to talk to each other more; ask questions, get to know the people around you - you never know where it will take you!
Munro, Portra 400
Munro was diagnosed after his eldest son. Since his diagnosis he has felt so free and has thrived. He is a sound engineer, and worked for Radio Womad & Bristol Community Radio before setting up his own radio station ‘Lanternman Radio’. He specialises in world music, and has recorded hundreds of live sessions with world artists ranging from Australian ska bands to Mongolian throat singers. He runs a very popular weekly quiz in a Yorkshire pub, and an online weekly quiz on Sundays, plus an all request show on Tuesdays. He is a keen cricketer, captains the team and plays football. Munro’s most passionate activity is being a loving Dad; he is very open about being autistic and aims to break down the stigma and stereotypes of an autistic male, dad, partner and friend.
‘Being diagnosed autistic at age 46 was like having a thick veil of confusion lifted from me.’ - Munro
Could you tell us more about the people in the photographs, how have they impacted you?
I honestly feel that every person I have met through my project has had a profound impact on me. I have been so astounded by the fact that each subject has trusted me enough to be completely vulnerable with their story. The project is open to any autistic person that would like to be celebrated and I'm so honoured that people have trusted me enough to do that.
Ethics will always remain the most central and intrinsic part of the project, so I only photograph people who have approached me. I never want anybody to feel pressured to share their vulnerability on a public platform or consent to something they don't feel comfortable with.
I initially announce the project in a local news outlet and some brave people contacted me saying they would be happy to take part, so most of the people in the project so far are pretty local. Although I am hoping to start travelling further afield now that covid restrictions are slowly lifting. I am always open and excited to celebrate as many people as possible through the project, but it needs to be completely without pressure and therefore I only shoot with participants that contact me as opposed to me approaching them.
Poppy, Portra 400
Poppy, aged 8, absolutely loves her jelly Cat Bunnies and has over 15, which she lovingly cares for - each bunny has a name and back story. One of her favourite things to do is to lie in bed surrounded by all her bunnies; I was so excited to meet them as she introduced me to every single one. She’s incredibly sweet, caring, loving and one of the funniest people I have ever met. Poppy’s emotional intuition really struck me, I am often quite anxious and shy when I meet people for the first time, but she did everything she could to put me at ease, and it really felt like I was hanging out with someone I had known for years. Poppy’s brother, Oliver, is also autistic, and when he becomes overwhelmed or distressed Poppy reaches out and soothes him. It is simply not true that autistic people lack emotional integrity, as shown by Poppy, autistic people can be some of the most emotionally insightful and intuitive people you will ever meet. She also loves reading and being in nature, particularly swimming in the local river and running around Brimham rocks. I had such a fun time photographing Poppy, and she does the best Jim impression from Friday night dinner I have ever heard! Poppy is the daughter of Munro, who featured in the previous post.
‘ I like my bunny’s they are called -
- Big Chewy
They make me feel happy’ - Poppy, aged 6.
What message did you want to convey through these photos?
I really wanted to show the real people behind the autism label and media characterisations. Each portrait session is conducted in an environment that is of significance to the subject, which allows people to get a real insight into their lives. I also always include an image of the subject’s hands; I think when the word ‘portrait’ is mentioned, people automatically think of headshots, but I actually think a subject’s hands can say a lot about their mannerisms, and allows for a more intimate insight into their life and character.
It seems strange to say, but during the shoots, the photographs actually become the least important part of the process. Without a doubt, the most important thing that the photographs need to convey is honest story telling. I think I maybe approach ‘shoots’ a little unconventionally - its not about the perfect lighting, the perfect composition, the perfect model; those things are truly important to commercial/editorial/fine art work, however, this project is about honesty and celebration. That is, if I were to ask a subject to pose a certain way for aesthetic purposes, or wear certain clothing, or request a specific location - then that’s not totally and honestly them. The project is about celebrating people as they truly are, so I tend to just chat to people and hear their stories, and treat it as a ‘hang out’ session where I take photos along the way rather than a photoshoot. So in that way, the shoot revolves around them and their story, and the camera is just an aid to capture that, rather than the subject revolving around the camera for a certain aesthetic.
What is your favourite photograph from the series?
It's quite difficult for me to pick a favourite image from the series so far because the photo sessions always centre around the subject and their story rather than the photos themselves. So the images are just a way to present and capture their narrative, life and outlook rather than the images existing as stand alone art. This makes it almost impossible for me to separate the individual’s story from the photographs themselves because they photographs become the story. Every person that has participated in the project so far has had a significant impact on my life and their stories have both humbled and inspired me. I feel so lucky that there are people in this world that are brave enough to trust me to share their narrative.
If I were to attempt to strip all of the narratives away from the photographs and look at them through an exclusively aesthetic lens, I would probably say that this photograph of a boy called Sebastian is one I am quite proud of. I like the quietness that the photograph captures and conveys, and the way in which the soft lighting highlights his soft nature. Sebastian is a super inspiring boy, and it was an honour to meet and photograph him for the project. The photograph actually ended up being published on Vogue Italia’s platform which was exciting!
Sebastian, Portra 400
What are your hopes for the future of the breadth portrait series?
The project is definitely a long-term thing, I plan to be working on it for at least another year or more. The dream is eventually to get the project published into a coffee table book, that shows each participant’s portraits and handwritten stories. I would love for the book to be used by schools, organisations, families, people going through diagnosis and the wider public to provide hope and dismantle the perceived limitations of autistic individuals. The book will truly highlight that autistic people come from all walks of life, and have thriving careers, relationships and achievements. The book will really celebrate the true breadth of the spectrum! I have really enjoyed the way in which this project has enabled me to express and articulate my experiences - I would really enjoy potentially venturing into public speaking about autism, and maybe, if I’m lucky, become an ambassador for an autistic charity. I think it is super important that autism services/legislation is service-user led; I’m so passionate about changing perspectives and practices surrounding autism, so its definitely something I will dedicate all of my time and energy toward.
How do you ensure the subjects in your photographs feel comfortable and relaxed before a shoot, do you have any tips for this?
I just make the photoshoot about them rather than the photos - the camera is truly just a tool to capture their story - the camera is not the centre of the story. I usually relate to the subject’s on some intrinsic level, due to (sadly) difficult school experiences. I also reveal my own vulnerabilities - its difficult to ask someone you don’t know so well to bare their soul to you, so I also bare mine, so that we exist in an equally vulnerable space. I also tend to laugh with the subjects as we talk about similar things we do or similar autism related stories we have, laughter always loosens people up!
I think a lot of the time, when people are taking photos of someone there is a silent power imbalance; the photographer is in control of how that person is being presented to the world, and when you think about it, someone having control over the way in which you are presented and perceived is scary. You are asking someone to relinquish control to you - so I tend to try and even that power imbalance by allowing myself to be as vulnerable as possible. They tell me about their life and at times, difficult narrative, and I tell them about mine - I don’t filter it, or alter it, I tell them the truth and real experiences, mistakes and all! It then becomes a transactional trust, rather than a one way communication. I also will simply watch them as we chat about nothing or chat about deep things - and watch their mannerisms, and just capture that authentically with the camera. I think taking regular chat breaks is super important too - as soon as you feel the subject tensing up or getting anxious/uncomfortable, make them laugh, laugh at yourself, or just put the camera down and chat.
Besides the breadth series, what else do you enjoy photographing?
For my brain, to create something I need a why or reason. That is, I’ve never been able to create something purely for aesthetic purposes, I don’t know if that’s down to a lack of creativity on my part or just apathy, but for me, aesthetic without a why has never been something I have been successful at producing. I always need a reason to photograph something; I am not the best at showing or articulating affection or love, so I use my camera to capture and hold the things and people I love. I try to capture the things/mannerisms/character I love about that person through the image.
I generally take pictures of my horses and my family - I think my images can usually say what I feel without me articulating it. I have taken quite a lot of portraits of my grandparents; they are in their 80’s and I find doing photoshoots with them a great way to spend time with them, and show the world how I see my grandparents through my eyes. When I am able to capture an aspect of someone I truly love, I feel like I'm keeping that piece of them in tangible format on film; it’s so precious to me.
Alex behind the scenes
Do you have any tips for portrait photography or any general film photography advice?
I think my biggest advice to anyone would always be photograph what you love! Spend time finding out what truly excites you, and find the thing in life you truly love and photograph it. The camera is just a tool at the end of the day, it's the world through your eyes that make a stunning photograph.
I think the other piece of advice I’d give is definitely advice I need to remind myself of on a daily basis; Social Media does not define your success. It is so easy to get sucked into the void of instagram followers and likes, and if I’m truly honest, it's a void I struggle to climb out of every day. In a society that largely measures success by our social media following and engagement, it is so easy to get caught up in the trap of producing content specifically to try and cater to Instagram’s audience. But in my limited experience, its like chasing a dragon, and ultimately leads to un-fulfilment and work you have no interest in. There is nothing worse than producing content you don’t care about, for people you don’t care about. The Instagram dragon is constantly evolving and is almost impossible to catch. Produce content you love, and success will follow. Measure your impact on real life differences, the way in which your work makes real people feel, and your own personal pride.
Do you have any female photographers that inspire your work? Or just a particular favourite on instagram that you would like to shoutout?
Honestly all of my inspiration comes from the amazing work of fantastic female photographers. The biggest influences on my work definitely come from Jennifer Sanson (@jennifersanson_) and Rosie Matheson (@rosie_matheson). Their work moves me so much, and they inspire me every day to improve my skills to one day become even half the photographers that they are. I have learnt a lot through film photographer Sophia Carey’s Youtube account (IG - @sophiajcarey) - she also shoots with an RZ67 and produces such amazing, insightful content. I watch her videos on repeat and it has improved my photography immensely. I think it is really important as female photographers to have other female photographers as a support network; Sasha Boiteau (@boiteausphotography) has supported me so much from the beginning of my project and is now someone I consider as true friend. She has given me so much advice and encouragement; as a photographer and friend, she inspires me endlessly.
Thank you so much to Alex for this amazing insight to your photography work and truly inspiring Breadth series, it is an incredibly moving project and it is so encouraging to see the huge steps you're taking to break down the misconceptions around autism, and all in such a powerful and creative way. I have learned so much from this interview and am so excited to see where this brilliant project takes you. Please check out Alex's instagram and website for more of her beautiful and moving photography!