I recently saw a thread that had developed on Twitter discussing neurodiversity amongst photographers. It made me think. I have taught neurodivergent photographers, but I have never been able to identify what impact that neurodiversity had on the aesthetic of their image-making if any and neither could they.
Neurodivergent is a nonmedical term that describes people whose brain develops or works differently for some reason. This means the person has different strengths and struggles from people whose brains develop or work more typically. While some people who are neurodivergent have medical conditions, it also happens to people where a medical condition or diagnosis hasn’t been identified, but neurodivergent isn’t a medical term. It’s a way to describe people using words other than the problematic terms of ‘normal’ and ‘abnormal.’ That’s important as there is no single definition of what ‘normal’ is and for how the human brain works, as recognised by Judy Singer, an Australian sociologist, who suggested the word ‘neurodiversity’ in 1998 to recognise that everyone’s brain develops in a unique way.
One of the most common examples of neurodiversity amongst photographers is dyslexia, a subject I have written about previously (https://unitednationsofphotography.com/2022/06/26/the-dyslexic-photographer/).
People with dyslexia struggle to read because their brain doesn’t process written language in the same way as the brain of someone without dyslexia. However, people with dyslexia usually have brains that are better at processing or mentally picturing 3D objects. That makes them much faster at identifying optical illusions, and they have a natural talent for jobs like graphic design and the arts, engineering and photography. However, dyslexia is not the only condition that fits within the neurodivergent umbrella. Autism spectrum disorder (this includes what was once known as Asperger’s syndrome), Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), Down syndrome, Dyscalculia (difficulty with maths), Dysgraphia (difficulty with writing), Dyspraxia (difficulty with coordination), Mental health conditions like bipolar disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder and social anxiety (a specific type of anxiety disorder) can all be seen as neurodivergent.
Interestingly, people who are neurodivergent often excel at communicating in online spaces. That’s because nonverbal communication — such as eye contact, facial expressions and body language — doesn’t have to be a part of online interaction. Experts often compare computers and other digital devices to prosthetics for those with difficulties in social communication.
I have met and taught photographers with the majority of these conditions over the years. You might even recognise some of them in yourself. To do so has required the development of different support strategies, that are fluid in nature and implementation as the personalities and preferences of neurodivergent people can be widely different, even when they have the same underlying condition. My experience of this has shown the need for patience and creativity in evolving accepted forms of photographic practice to accommodate the specific challenges and talents of the neurodivergent photographer. What it has also evidenced is the creation of strong, individual, personal work when the photographer is encouraged to explore subject matter that is important to not only who they are, but how they see the world.
I started this article by referencing a Twitter thread. In that thread a photographer stated this, “Neurodivergence influences how I make images. Not just in what I photograph, but in how I photograph it. I like clean lines and simple composition and although I struggle to verbalise my ‘style’ maybe graphic works? In the sense of it being clear and visually explicit.” This made sense to me and was illuminating.
All the neurodivergent photographers I have worked with have wanted to bring order to chaos and yet they have struggled to bring clarity to their vision when discussing their projects. The clarity has come when the camera is in their hands and images are being made. In this sense photography becomes their true voice.
Whenever I meet students looking to study photography who identify themselves as dyslexic I welcome them with open arms. I aim to dismiss any sense of negativity they may feel related to their diagnosis. I explain that they are perfect for photography where their strengths will be to their benefit and their challenges no longer issues they will be defined by. This is easy as I can give many examples of successful dyslexic photographers. Other conditions are more difficult to give supportive examples as they are not so openly discussed and proclaimed. However, I know that they exist and I continue to look for them, whilst attempting to remove any feelings of stigma that may exist. I’m sure you will want to do the same.
Dr. Grant Scott is the founder/curator of United Nations of Photography, a Senior Lecturer and Subject Co-ordinator: Photography at Oxford Brookes University, Oxford, a working photographer, documentary filmmaker, BBC Radio contributor and the author of Professional Photography: The New Global Landscape Explained (Routledge 2014), The Essential Student Guide to Professional Photography (Routledge 2015), New Ways of Seeing: The Democratic Language of Photography (Routledge 2019). His film Do Not Bend: The Photographic Life of Bill Jay was first screened in 2018 www.donotbendfilm.com. He is the presenter of the A Photographic Life and In Search of Bill Jay podcasts.
© Grant Scott 2022
As a frequent listener to your podcast with its question of ‘what does photography mean to you’ and as someone who has ADHD I often answer the question myself while listening. What I often come back to is that photography for me is an opportunity to participate. To quote Susan Sontag ‘photography is both participation and alienation at the same time’, when I initially read those words they struck a cord immediately. The social difficulties or awkwardness I often feel as someone neurodivergent can often lead to isolation or withdrawal as participating in a world and social setting formed outside of consideration for my experience, is in itself isolating. Photography gives me a reason to be at an event, go to parties and passively meet people as I know there is always the potential of a great image. Regarding specifically having ADHD my proclivity for impulsivity (ironically) leads to a lack of inhibitions in producing photo’s in environments I would otherwise struggle in without a camera.
Thanks for sharing your experience and supporting the podcast