On meeting Joe James, the first thing you notice is his smile. It’s unexpected, given that 37-year-old Joe was diagnosed as autistic five years ago. Generally speaking, the widespread stereotype of autism is not an open cheerful man who is naturally affectionate and greets strangers with a hug, but that’s Joe. However, despite his diagnosis giving clarity and understanding of the many challenges he faced as a boy and man, it’s not been an easy journey to be the accepting, creative and generous person he is today. “When I discovered I was autistic, I obviously looked into it and talked to other autistic people, because I don’t believe that non-autistic people will ever be able to understand what it’s like. You can read every book, listen to experts, but how can you be an expert when you’re not autistic?”
While he absolutely did not let his diagnosis define him, Joe’s experiences growing up, coupled with some later traumatic experiences, led to a period of deep depression and anxiety that he didn’t really understand. He was living in a state of continual anger and “always anxious to varying degrees”. This is sadly all too common for autistic people. A recent study undertaken in Norway found that adults with an ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder – a term which Joe very much rejects saying “it’s not a disorder, it’s just who I am”) or ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) are up to 14 times more likely to suffer from anxiety than adults without. Joe, like many other autistic people, has also had an ADHD diagnosis. The two in tandem mean that while he is considered ‘high functioning’, the constant need for stimulation – the hallmark of ADHD – means that he will ‘hyperfocus’ only on what stimulates his brain the most. In Joe’s world, this is photography.
“I love photography, it’s my art, my expression, it gives me another type of voice, to show visually how I feel,” explains Joe. “Through my pictures I can show people how I feel because a lot of the time I can’t really express myself. Especially over social media. This is how I interpret what I see. This is where I find beauty.”
He describes the experience of shooting and editing his photos as “like putting on noise cancelling headphones, all the people around me just don’t exist anymore” and has a process he follows for each shot. He uses the screen to adjust his light and viewfinder to discover the moment. In editing, he will not add or remove anything to the image, simply making little adjustments that resonate with his senses until it becomes the memory he remembers. “I was going to beautiful places with my family and taking pictures because those moments were the only moments when I felt happy. I’m bottling memories because I get to go home and open it up and experience it again.”
He credits his Canon EOS 4000D with being the tool that helped him to win his battle with depression, “The technology that goes in to Canon’s auto mode is so flipping brilliant that it was able to take away all the anxiety of how the camera works. I’m just able to do what I want, which is to take pictures because that’s what makes me happy.”
But it was when he began sharing his photography on Facebook that things really stepped up a notch for Joe. He joined a local amateur photography group, without sharing that he is autistic and eventually joined more to share his photography, always without initially sharing that he is autistic because he didn’t want “verbal pats on the head”. The likes flooded in and people complimented his photography, which spurred him on to explain his motivation for sharing his memories. “I said ‘I’m autistic and I’m obsessed with photography. I’m really sorry if I’m posting too much. Please let me know if you have any issues because I sometimes don’t understand boundaries.” He was scared, but the response was overwhelming – hundreds of messages of support and, more importantly, other autistic people getting in touch too.
Opening yourself up on the internet is not without its risks, and part of the autistic life often means tackling the intense emotional responses to perceived criticism, disappointment or rejection, known as Rejection Dysphoria (RD). Joe knows this feeling well. “I’ve thrown my camera in a bush because I’ve thought ‘I’m a terrible photographer, I don’t want to do this anymore’. Someone said something bad about my picture – it’s had 2000 likes and over 200 responses of positivity, but one person makes a bad comment…” RD can be catastrophic for self-esteem, but it’s clear that his wife Sylvia has been the rock that Joe has needed throughout his life. He describes her as “an angel”, his eyes misting over as he talks about how she has stuck by him through thick and thin, even when he didn’t believe he was deserving of her love. With her support, Joe had the confidence to start talking more widely about his photography, and in turn, being autistic. He agreed to speak to the BBC and set up his own Facebook page – Joe James Autistic Photography – so that they had somewhere to reference in their coverage.
His personal Facebook page suddenly made him directly available to other autistic people and their families. His wife jokingly rolls her eyes at the mention of Joe’s daily Facebook habit: “When I wake up in the morning, he’s already on the phone answering their messages,” says Sylvia. “He has to answer everything himself.” But they both realise what a responsibility Joe has in being at the other end of Facebook Messenger for the families who reach out to him – often because they have autistic children. And when these kids send him their photos, so he can see through their eyes, Joe can barely contain his joy. “They haven’t been conditioned by society to think of themselves as ‘needing help’, they are just who they are, and they just feel how they feel.”
His profile through social media has taken him into schools to talk to children about his autistic life, using his photography as visual aids to the stories he tells. “I had a stutter when I was a child and was bullied, so I just stopped talking. Looking back, I would have been called ‘non-verbal. My goal is to help kids [like me].” His outreach has encouraged children to come forward and talk about their diagnoses and his relationships with families have sparked a fresh understanding of their autistic experience. But this is just the beginning. Joe dreams of expanding his reach – to give young autistic people like him the opportunity to explore their creativity and use photography as an additional voice. And at the same time, showing the world how life looks through their lens.
“I will always be the person who looks at things differently and says exactly how I feel, but every single day I try to be a better version of myself. Whether that’s eating healthier, being kinder or just setting myself targets in all aspects of life and then going for those targets. I’m continuously trying to be better. It’s just healing.”
Joe’s new book ‘Mindfulness Through Photography” is available to pre-order. Simply message Joe via his Facebook page, where families with autistic children can also book photography trips.