Colin Potsig is a photographer based in North East England. He was diagnosed with autism about five years ago, at 37 years old. In this profile, we go behind the lens to learn about Colin's "You, Me and Autism" exhibition and his upcoming projects.
Tell us about yourself.
I live in Allendale, a rural market town in ‘an area of natural beauty’ here in the North East of England. I am a married father of three girls, one of which, our ten-year old, was diagnosed with autism at the age of seven.
When and how were you diagnosed with autism?
I was diagnosed about five years ago, when I was 37. My wife is an Autism Advisory teacher. Her role is to help schools fully to include children with social communication difficulties, including autism, and to support their families. After seven years of marriage, she plucked up the courage and asked me to read a piece of paper about Asperger’s one day. Reading it, I thought ‘this sounds like me’ and I had what I like to state as my "alcoholic's moment of clarity," where my entire life flashed before my eyes and suddenly everything made sense.
How did you discover your passion for photography?
When I was 11 and in secondary school, my art teacher introduced me to the dark room and I was fascinated. Within a couple of months I was totally addicted. The natural ability to see images and compose them in my mind was always there and photography was basically a way of bringing these to life.
Let’s hear about your exhibition "You, Me and Autism." What was this exhibition and how did it come to be?
I had discovered a passion for portrait photography after I watched a documentary. I decided I wanted to do an exhibition of the eclectic and varied people of the area in which I live.
It took nearly two years to complete and I knew it was going to be hard because of the interaction between sitter and photographer, different from taking landscapes on my own.
From there I had the idea to do the same type of portraits but for people on the Autistic spectrum, featuring both unsung people, and those who have become well known in their field despite – or because of – having autism, but it quickly became apparent that we needed to separate the two.
So the "You, Me and Autism" exhibition focused on the people on the spectrum in the North East of England. It featured 25 portraits and was exceptionally well received and exhibited in the Side Gallery, the only documentary photography gallery here in the UK.
Obviously meeting people is very hard, but having the understanding when taking a photograph that the sitter is in the same position as you is very comforting and rewarding. I always took the photographs of the people in their own environment so that they felt comfortable; with the awkwardness being put on me, as this is my journey.
What projects or exhibitions are you working on now? We'd love to hear about what's in the works and your vision.
I am currently working on "You, Me and Autism Too." This is the second stage of the project. Here I am photographing autistic people who are famous or successful in their field, to document just how much you can achieve, no matter what barriers you may face with autism.
The challenges with this stage are much greater than stage one, as I have to leave my comfort zone of the North East and travel extensively to photograph famous people.
So far there have been six people photographed and I have travelled around fifteen hundred miles already. This project is currently my entire working life. The first weekend I was out shooting, I worked with four people and I think it was the adrenaline that fueled me, or maybe the importance of just getting these photographs taken over this ‘big’ weekend, as I was actually quite sick. It was only on the journey home that I felt like I could actually be ill, as the work we had been planning and building up to had been done. I was ill for about three weeks afterwards, but I got some great photos.
The style of this exhibition is different to the first stage as each photo will be unique to the sitter, to show their individualism.
Ideally I would like at least 20 people to feature in this exhibition, which will be shown in London next year. Temple Grandin has shown an interest in what I am doing and I recognize that to photograph her I will need to make a trip to the USA. So right now I am currently researching other Americans on the spectrum.
What advice do you have for other individuals with autism spectrum disorders as they pursue their passion?
Everyone has a dream: it’s very easy for that dream to be quashed, or for you to be told you can’t achieve it; that’s only magnified by being autistic. So the passion you have for your individual talent should drive your ambition. As an autistic person it’s very hard to do this individually so try to seek help from Autism advocates, charities and services which will appreciate your difficulties yet not allow this to impede your potential. I could not of did these projects if I hadn’t found help in this way.