A boy lies backwards across a bed, his back arching over a cushion beneath him. His hand reaches towards the viewer and begins to blur; underneath, a handwritten caption reads: “I feel relaxed when I play with string.” This is photographer Erin Lefevre’s brother, Liam, who has autism, and who is the subject of her project Liam’s World. The project was the winning entry in the 2019 Wellcome Photography Prize, and was selected for its intimate portrayal of Liam’s life, made up of tender portraits taken by his sister, and his own reflections on the moments depicted.
“I decided to photograph my brother because for years growing up I didn’t understand him,” says Lefevre of the beginnings of her project. She was studying photography at the San Francisco Art Institute, and exploring methods of photojournalism and documenting life around her. “At that time in my life I was starting to see photography as a way to understand the world, and I wanted to use it as a way to better understand my brother, to see if I could get any insight into his thoughts and feelings,” she describes. During the photographer’s childhood, the cultural conversation around autism in America felt muted. “It seemed like people were still really figuring out what autism was, what it looks like, and how it impacted people, and those were just not discussions that I heard growing up.”
The photographer initially found it to be a challenging subject to visualise and to communicate to others in a way that resonated. “I would show the work to people, and they’d say, ‘well, it doesn’t look like there’s anything wrong with him’,” she recalls. Autism, after all, is an invisible condition. How can one communicate both its trials and joys through imagery? “I tried to focus on the intimate aspects of Liam’s life, but also areas where he struggles,” Lefevre says, “such as communicating with others, taking public transportation, the sort of things that neurotypical people take for granted”. In 2018, however, the project radically changed once Lefevre began to sit down with her brother and review the pictures they’d taken together, asking him about his feelings or memories about the day, which then became captions. “That’s kind of how I felt the project really began: once we incorporated his voice into the work.” Liam’s World began to emerge: his outward experience was presented alongside his inner one.
One of the aims of the Wellcome Photography Prize is to dispel clichés associated with conditions such as autism, which Lefevre agrees is crucial. “People with disabilities are portrayed in such redundant stereotypes, and it’s really important to shift that narrative into a more faithful portrayal of people’s lives,” she notes. This upending of cliché is especially manifest as a bright strain of humour that runs through the work. Liam is often bitingly witty: “Whenever my mom gives me a hard time I tell her she is just like her mother.” Elsewhere, Liam is portrayed studying, looking at “celebrities who are girls” online (“because they are beautiful”), out with his best friend, and holding hands with his girlfriend, Natasha. Though such universal, relatable experiences are ever-present, Liam’s cognitive difference is clear. In one particularly poignant image, he strides forward with an umbrella blown out backwards, streetlights glowing gold behind him. The strangers around him look put out by the rain, but not Liam: “When the rain started to come down I was ok with it.”
Winning the Wellcome Photography Prize has had a transformative effect on Lefevre’s photographic life. “To have my work recognised and supported by such an esteemed trust has helped validate the years of work I put into this project,” she says. The prize money has afforded her a sense of stability and will allow her to update her photographic equipment as well as to fund new personal projects. “Winning grants and awards are so important as a photographer,” she says. “If you want to do work you really have to have the time and the money to do it, so thankfully now it’s going to help me with future work.” She has also set some of the money aside for Liam. Most of all, she has enjoyed the reception the project has received since winning the award. “I’ve had so many people reach out to me — people who have children who are on the spectrum, siblings, people they know, their neighbours — and thanking me, because they tell me it helps them understand their children better. I’ve had people tell me it’s really helped them to build that bridge, and it makes them look at people who have autism differently, with a more empathetic light.”
For now, Lefevre has changed direction: she is pursuing a masters degree in Education, and teaching in a school for students with moderate to severe disabilities, the majority of whom are on the autism spectrum. “It seemed like a very natural shift,” she describes. “Working with so many different types of students has helped me to communicate better with Liam, and to understand my photography practice. I feel like I’m getting the best of both worlds.” The work she is currently doing will undoubtedly inform her personal photography projects later down the line, given her committed belief in photography’s social impact. “I see it as an art form, but it’s also a tool for activism, and that’s why I’m drawn to the stories that I’m drawn to,” she explains. Just as the Wellcome Photography Prize aims to highlight, photography can be used as a powerful tool for social change, for digesting and describing worlds that a viewer may not have ever witnessed.
Photography is unique in its ability to record and translate profound emotional experiences. Images are immediate, and arresting, in ways that written journalism is sometimes not, and it is this potent ability that the Wellcome Photography Prize seeks to reward.
On a personal level, the project has achieved what Lefevre set out to do: she understands her brother better. “I would say our relationship now is stronger than it’s ever been before,” she describes. Liam is happy with the results too. “He’s really pleased with it,” Lefevre says. “I joke with him: I say, ‘Liam you’re famous now!’”