In March, TODAY featured Bob Lee, veteran photojournalist and photography trainer for youths with varied disabilities. 

We caught up with Bob and with his student Joshua Yeo during the latter’s gig as event photographer at the 2016 National Occupational Therapy Conference at the Enabling Village. Joshua, 24, has autism. His interest in photography has opened up new ways of communicating with the world. In this interview, Bob (BL) and Joshua’s mother Karen (KY) share their approach for teaching and communicating, as well as how photography has opened up opportunities for their children.

Q: How did you discover Joshua’s interest in photography?

KY: Joshua’s not good at communication, but when he wants people to pose for photos, he takes the initiative to ask. Joshua used to study at Mountbatten Vocational School and whenever there were group events, he would gather the volunteers and take photos for them.

We were looking for photography courses where he could learn to improve, but weren’t able to find suitable courses, which he could understand. A friend connected us with Bob who helped him prepare for this event.

Photo of Joshua's event pass

Joshua’s tools of the trade

Q: Bob, share with us how you worked with Joshua?

BL: Our first meeting was in an open area where we walked around together to see what he was inclined to photograph. My objective was to get a sense of how verbal he was. Joshua could listen to instructions like “squat down” or “shoot from a lower angle” which meant I didn’t have to use paper to communicate with him.

We came up with a script for him to introduce himself and a step-by-step guide to take photos. It really wasn’t much about photography, but the process of preparing him to meet people. The script he had to say went along the lines of: “Hello, I am Joshua, the official photographer. May I take your picture please?” Then if people said no, he had to thank them and know how to move on.

Joshua at work during the breakout sessions of the SAOT conference

We worked over sporadic sessions from August to October this year (2016) and set the National Occupational Therapy Conference as the target for him to work towards. We also went to Enabling Village to practise. My intention was for him to be prepared to talk to people and just let the camera help him, rather than get caught up in technical things like ISO or shutter speed. In this case, we relied on the camera’s auto function and focused on his communication skills. It was a big part in determining the outcome of his experience.

Q: What challenges did you face or how did you help him understand?

BL: I think that he enjoys talking to people, but he might speak in a manner that might not be appropriate. That’s when I have to teach him how to take rejection. He used to continue taking photographs even when people said no.

I had to be very specific in my instructions. Instead of using terms like wide, mid or close-up shots, I had to contextualise it in terms of including the number of tables, or a whiteboard, or the speaker into the frame.

Photo of Bob and Joshua discussing some photos

Bob Lee gives Joshua feedback on some pictures he had just taken

Q: You’ve taught photography to youths from NAFA and Ngee Ann Polytechnic as well as youths from Pathlight School and with visual impairment. How are the experiences different?

BL: When I taught youths from the mainstream schools, it was definitely easier for them to understand the teaching material or knowledge we are trying to share. The photographs we get are usually pictures that convey messages or are aesthetically pleasing. With my students who had special needs, the expectation changes.

As tutors, we need to be clear about the role of photography with different groups of students. It’s not about turning them into professional photographers. For example, I’ve taught my son Junle, who has autism, to take photos. Junle prefers to use the instant cameras, as he liked the ‘cause and effect’ of taking instant photos. My wife and I discovered it was a good way to learn how to follow instructions and communicate through his photos. For example, I would tell him to shoot the rooftop, but not the windows, or the clouds without the trees. He actually understood what we were hoping for him to do.

Photo of Joshua's camera's LCD screen

Joshua reviews the pictures he had just taken at Tech Able

Q: Karen, what have you learnt about Joshua through his love for photography?

KY: I learnt that Joshua is a sentimental person. After photographing someone, he will ask for the person’s name and write it down behind the image. I’ve caught him smiling to himself many times, just going through the images and thinking about the events he photographed.

Now we have many boxes and albums at home. I didn’t even realise he was meticulously collecting them, so we’re

[now] working with him to slowly categorise them. Now that he’s transitioning to young adulthood and trying to get a job, we thought that encouraging him to pursue this hobby would open more avenues for him.

And here are the results of a day of work with Joshua and his mentor:

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