We were on the way to his winter formal, excited for his friends’ reactions but slightly dismayed that we had lost light long before he was camera ready. It was 6:45 and pitch black. My mother, whom I am staying with while visiting, suggested that we shoot his photos another day. I never have been fond of the idea of a re shoot. It all seems so staged and the magic of the moment has come and gone. There isn’t any excitement in the air, or the nervousness of a 16 year old boy anticipating the moment he would ask his crush to dance. Those feelings, those butterflies… that is what brings a session to life. Determined to at least get one dang photo of him all dressed up and feeling fancy, I drove with my camera on my lap searching for even the tiniest hint of light to document this day for him. My eyes are trained to take even the most mundane looking back drops and turn it into something wonderful for my clients. For my brother, it didn’t matter the circumstances- we were going to make it work.
This session was doubly important for my brother. At 15 he was teetering around 300 pounds, suffering major depression and with a diagnosis of Autism that had been looming over him for years, Liam hid behind the many labels society had branded him with. Kids have never been kind. Anyone who has survived high school will tell you it’s not the most pleasant phase in their life. When you are Autistic, obese, semi in the closet and donned a “freak” for your long hair and lack of social expertise… it can be an excruciating experience. My brother has fought with major depression, an absent, demeaning father and all the pain of knowing he was different but lacking the ability to connect with his peers.
About a year ago my mother began dating a man who, after some time and tough love became a father figure to my brother. My mother so desperately wanted to protect Liam from the world but by doing so held him back in many ways. As a single, struggling mother every day, every appointment, misdiagnosis, empty promise and mountain of paperwork pushed her further and further into survival mode. Just getting by was a miracle, child support never came and on the off chance, Marc, his “dad” actually took the time to see him it did more damage than anything. Between Marc’s verbal abuse and the many emotional problems surrounding Autistic teen, my brother’s internal dialogue was often “I can’t, I have Autism” “I’m Autistic” “I’m Different” “I’m a freak” “I’m not worthy” “I’m fat” “I’m unwanted.”
My heart broke the first time my mother told me she was scared for his future. She didn’t trust him to be alone and worried if one day he would take his life. His depression often intensified on the rare occasions his father would make an appearance and life most times would put Liam down and make him feel further alienated from social norms. The man that my mother dated looked at Liam and saw so much more than what the world branded him with, so much more than the pain and anger that had engulfed him. He saw a confused and hurting young man, he saw a die hard harry potter fan but most importantly, he saw potential.
He saw that the true person Liam was, was hiding over years of doctor visits, of verbal abuse from his dad and bullies. He saw a boy with the biggest heart, a sensitive soul who really just wanted to be accepted. However due to years of being an outcast, adopted the title and clung to his false identity with fierce determination. This man, we can call him Rob for sake of his privacy, worked with Liam in instilling discipline, pride and work ethic. The kid who hid behind his shaggy hair and label after label slowly began to come out of his shell. It started with a haircut, then weight loss as he began to work out in the yard. He gained confidence in his new look, Rob and my mother took him shopping. He began to feel really good about his new style and image. Soon his grades were improving. He thrived off of all the positive feedback he was getting from family and teachers. He stood a little taller, smiled more broadly and began to interact more with the world.
Liam will always be Autistic, we are a blue family and appreciate the way he sees the world. That is something that will never change. Once placed fairly low on the spectrum we were worried about his care if anything were to happen to my mother. Now I have such hope and confidence in Liam’s future. He took his astounding ability to focus and put it towards academics whereas before he hid in the fantasy worlds of LOTR, Spiderwick and Harry Potter. My brother now is pursuing a career in medicine, has better math grades than I ever hoped to have and while he still takes things VERY literally has developed quite the knack for knock knock jokes.
I left home when Liam was about 9, when he was untouched by the world. He had always reminded me of the color yellow. His blonde hair, crazy big smile and his affinity for hugs. Each year as I came back, I felt like the world dulled him down. I no longer saw that bright light he seemed to exude when telling me about his favorite book or the most intimate details of each character that he knew by heart. I felt like all his sunshine and happiness was slowly being replaced by a gray fog. When I saw him this visit however there was my little brother again. My bright, smiling sibling. He is still wonderfully strange, and makes all sorts of references to LOTR that I will never understand but thats him. That’s my brother in all the glory of his nerdiness.
I think this goes to show you what can happen in a person when someone truly believes in you. Builds you up with kind words, doesn’t let you sit in your own misery once you’ve fallen and constantly pushes you to be better. My mother’s gentle touch and Rob’s no nonsense attitude helped build Liam into the confident teen he is today. My mom and Rob have since parted ways but he still plays an active role in my brother’s life. He still offers him advice and mentors my brother through the rocky transition into adulthood.
This photo session almost didn’t happen. Our neighborhood has very few lights, it was rainy and cold but it didn’t matter. In these 5 minutes, I was documenting so much more than a nervous teen anticipating his first winter formal. I was capturing 365 days of hard work, of discomfort, of pride and sorrow and joy. This night, against this one wall of a local elementary school lit by a security light I caught the sum of his past year, 110 pounds down, GPA double what it had been but most importantly, a newfound sense acceptance and love for himself.
Liam, I am entirely proud of you and how far you’ve come. Thank you for letting me get you in front of my camera, even just for a minute.