- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 25, 2012

Brian studied a tree, his face unmoving in concentration.

He brought a small camera to his eye. One press of a button, lush green leaves captured. The camera returned to his side.

Unlike the other amateur photographers crowding the Tidal Basin on Wednesday, Brian had his back to the billions of cherry blossoms blooming around him.

“I like bushes, plants, trees and flowers, you name it,” said Brian, 25. “There’s a lot of other stuff I like taking pictures of.”

He walked on, shoulders hunched and hands clasped, his light eyes searching for his next subject.

Brian was one of four men who made the trip to the Tidal Basin with the InFocus Project, an initiative of the Montgomery County-based Community Services for Autistic Adults and Children.

The agency for more than 30 years has served children and adults living with autism. The InFocus Project is part of the agency’s supportive employment program and began three years ago when several of the adults “expressed an interest in the arts,” community services Executive Director Ian Paregol said.

And, just as important, the pictures produced through the project provide insight into the people who took them.

“We can see through their eyes what they find interesting. Photography is one of the only vehicles that can capture that,” Mr. Paregol said. “What we’ve found is we learn as much from them as they learn from us.”

With the help of Craig Pardini, a master photographer and director of facilities for the service agency, the young adults began their lessons simply learning how to hold and operate the camera, then moving on to composition, framing and manipulating color.

“Just because someone is autistic doesn’t mean they don’t have interests,” Mr. Paregol said.

Though an overcast sky Wednesday wasn’t ideal, Mr. Pardini said it was an opportunity for a Photoshop lesson.

“I figured it’s a teaching experience: How to make the sky … a little more blue,” he said with a laugh.

Judging by the proud smiles and enthusiastic shutter snaps issuing from the group of men, the less-than-perfect weather didn’t detract from the experience.

The men ranged in age, as well as interest and ability.

Matt, 31, doesn’t speak, and Jimmie, 36, speaks only a little. Both had big smiles on their faces, their eyes lit up and taking in their surroundings.

While Brian is a thoughtful, patient man who enjoys landscape shots, James, 35, spent much of his morning hamming it up for passers-by.

“Thank you, mister!” James called out to a man who inadvertently walked through one of his shots.

He uttered a low “wow” as he craned his neck to watch a pretty woman walk by.

“James, he likes to talk,” said Agymang Nkrumah, a job coach with the agency who works with Brian and James and accompanied the men on their trip. “He makes you happy. Everything James sees he wants to take a picture.”

Mr. Nkrumah said that in the five years he has been working at the agency, he has seen improvements with the men when they go to work.

James and Brian have part-time jobs at the Olney Theatre and at a local recreation center.

“We try to get individuals we serve into the community and show to the community that individuals with autism are part of it,” Mr. Paregol said.

The InFocus Project is another way to do that.

When the men finish editing their work, they’ll post the photographs to an online store for purchase. The photographers print, mount, frame and ship all the orders. A $5,000 donation given in 2010 by the Letaw Family Foundation helped cover the cost of editing and printing equipment.

John Boit, a spokesman for the autism agency, said an exhibit featuring the men’s work was held last year at a D.C. studio.

A photograph taken by Matt was used by the high-end travel magazine CEO Traveler with an article about the cherry blossoms.

“They needed a photograph of cherry blossoms,” Mr. Boit said. “He was credited as a photographer. It had nothing to do with the fact he’s autistic.”

• Meredith Somers can be reached at msomers@washingtontimes.com.

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