It isn't supposed to have a message. Photographer Timothy Archibald says the series of photos he took of his son Eli are not built on a topic or story -- there is no beginning, middle and end. He hopes that viewers sense a relationship forming between a father and son, but that's all. And, one thing that the project turned book, “Echolilia: Sometimes I Wonder,” definitely isn’t about, is autism.
Eli's parents always knew he was different, but they couldn't explain how and certainly couldn't answer why. It was his younger brother's development that shone a light on Eli's circumstances. When little brother, Wilson, turned 2 and Eli was 5, the mystery of "What's up with Eli?" seemed to “take over everything,” Archibald told The Huffington Post.
The father and son started doing photo shoots together around that time. But, Archibald says, he wasn’t trying to create a masterpiece -- "Echolilia" happened completely by accident. Taking pictures together was “just something to do,” something to fill the time. None of the shots were planned. Eli would be doing something quirky around the house (for example, blowing into a tube) and dad would shoot in different locations, make lighting adjustments and experiment. Each session only lasted about five to ten minutes before Eli got bored, Archibald said.
Midway through kindergarten, while the shoots were already underway, Eli was diagnosed with autism. His parents were surprised because he’s “so high-functioning,” but they weren’t sad. They already knew and loved their son who Archibald describes as curious, loud, mechanical and larger-than-life –- the diagnosis didn't change who he was. If anything, the autism label “explained some things,” because Eli was different from the other kids, Archibald said.
Letters that Archibald received in response to "Echolilia" showed him that Eli is not alone, not unusual per se. He often receives notes from other parents who say, “That looks like my kid.” The words are surprising and comforting. “I thought it was just us,” Archibald said.
At a recent photo festival called Look3, Eli, now 10, explained what "Echolilia" has meant to him. “It kind of looks into my mind a bit,” he said. “It can kind of show what the autistic brain is like and what autistic kids, or maybe just normal kids in the ages of 5-8 years old, would do.”
Archibald told NPR that Eli’s awareness of his autism is important -– he wants his son to see his individuality as an asset. But as a father, Archibald ignores the diagnosis -– he told The Huffington Post that it doesn't change how he parents Eli. “Building the relationship is your key to everything,” he said.