Portraits of autistic women
Rosie Barnes is a documentary photographer who has a particular interest in what she terms disability/difference. She has produced work that looks at the experience of autism (Understanding Stanley), obesity (Teenage Obesity) and more recently the hidden lives of autistic women.
The latter project, No You’re Not, arose out of her work running a local branch of the National Autistic Society, where she helped run a support group for parents of autistic children. During a session about 8 years ago, one of the mothers made a revelation that took Rosie and the other parents (who were mostly women) by surprise. “She said, I’m starting to think that I might be autistic. We were taken aback because it was a shocking thing for a woman to say.”
“I’m a very quiet sort of watcher. I was always described as a daydreamer but actually I was trying to figure out what humans are about and why we do the things we do.”
Rosie explains that it’s still uncommon for women to be diagnosed as autistic, with the medical profession more likely to see it as a typically male thing.
Over the next few weeks other mothers in the group announced that they too could be autistic. It made Rosie think about the impact this lack of understanding and diagnosis might have on women’s lives, and about the numbers of women who may be living with a secret or masking their true selves to get by: despite a significant change in the law and societies attitudes to autism, it can still be problematic for people to speak out about it in the workplace.
At the time Rosie was looking around for a new project to focus on. “I decided to search out these women who to all intents and purposes appear to be functioning very well, they may have families or a career, there may not be anything about them that stands out.”
The title of the project points to the problem that wider society has with accepting the idea that women can be autistic, with well meaning people dismissing the possibility by arguing that a woman has achieved academically, or can make eye contact or hold down a job. “I called it No You’re Not because so far I’ve interviewed and photographed about 25 women, and all of them, without exception when they’ve told people that they might be autistic, have been told by family, friends or colleagues, no you’re not.”
The challenge of finding subjects for portrait photographs
Initially Rosie found it quite challenging to recruit people for her project, with potential subjects worried that they may face prejudice, or repercussions in the workplace, or were simply reluctant to disclose their diagnosis in public. But as the project has gone on and it has received publicity, with a commission from the Wellcome Collection and recent selection for the Taylor Wessing Prize, Rosie has started to hear from women who want to be included.
Something integral to the project is the inclusion of each woman’s words. The interviews, in extended captions are always included, alongside the portraits, giving equal importance to both. Rosie also makes an effort to include the subjects in the selection and editing process. “I always send them 2 or 3 of my favourite images to view, though make them aware that the final choice is a balancing act, based on how they sit within the set/the project. This is a collaboration with a lot of mutual respect”.
The project is really starting to achieve the aims Rosie set out with. “My benchmark is always to be able to produce a piece of work that reaches and is meaningful to ‘the people at the bus stop’ (as I call them). To be able to take a complicated issue and make it mean something in a simple, human way, to someone who may not have even considered the subject, nor thought it could be relevant to their own lives. If I can do that, I know I have succeeded. Autism is something that has always been misunderstood, though that is beginning to change. I’m hopeful that ‘No You’re Not’ can add more insight and more understanding to the subject”.