- Associated Press - Saturday, October 1, 2016

CRAFTON, Pa. (AP) - Joe Smith is walking Downtown.

Suddenly, he stops. He points his camera at a crack in the sidewalk.

He shoots, then moves on.

Until he notices a traffic cone. He stops and shoots again.

Now there is something in the distance. Joe starts running.

He finds it, shoots, then says:

“Let’s keep moving forward.”

A man on the street watches his unusual methods.

“Who is he?” the man asks. “Someone famous?”

No. He’s Joe Smith. A photographer.

“Just a photographer?” the man says.

Yes. Just a photographer.


The first time Joe picked up a camera was in 1996.

His second-grade class took a field trip to the zoo. Joe’s parents gave him a disposable camera.

“I took a few photos of stuff, and it was pretty good,” says Joe, 28, of Crafton. “Various classmates and various wildlife. I was 8. I just took photos and stuff because it would be cool.”

Joe did not know then that he had autism.

He was diagnosed at 3. But his parents did not tell him.

“I taught high school for 35 years, and I saw all too often where kids were given permission to use their disability as an excuse, and that wasn’t going to happen,” says Joe’s mom, Debra Smith. “We weren’t going to use that as an excuse for him not to succeed.”

Instead, they gave him a camera.

Question: Joe, how many photos have you taken?

Joe: Thousands. I can’t give an estimate.

Question: Joe, will you take photos forever?

Joe: I can’t really answer that. My story has yet to be written.

Question: What is your favorite reaction to a photo?

Joe: This looks pretty good. This looks cool.

Question: I imagine you get that a lot?

Joe: Yup.


There are mannequins on Market Square.

They are not clothed. So Joe does not take a photo.

At the fountain in Point State Park, people wade in the water, near a sign saying that wading is not allowed.

Again, Joe takes no photos. He wants to leave.

“I wear superhero T-shirts because these T-shirts represent morality,” he says.

Rule-breakers do not.

So Joe will not photograph them.


During his senior year at Point Park University, Joe discovered poetry.

He writes often about what he shoots.

He wrote “The Puzzle” for a series of close-ups of a pile of puzzle pieces.

“This is called struggle.

“I have lived with it for most of my life.

“I can’t figure out where the pieces go.

“I am determined to solve the riddle.

“I will complete the puzzle.”


Joe finds inspiration everywhere.

“Legos. Store windows. Ani- mals. Food. Photo stories. That sort of thing,” he says. “I’m inspired by various TV shows, like “Dr. Who,” ”Star Trek,” ”Dark Shadows” - that was an oldie. But enough about that.”

On a recent walk Downtown, he uses his Canon digital to take a close-up of tree bark. Then, a fire hydrant.

In PPG Plaza, he shoots a chair, metal barriers, reflections in glass.

On Fifth Avenue, he bends over and shoots a bush.

On Wood Street, he aims his camera at traffic signals and bus stop signs.

“With photography,” he says, “you can make any story happen.”


His college thesis was called The Spectrum Project.

It included more than 100 self-portraits of Joe wearing superhero shirts.

“How I got the idea is because, back in the day, I was a huge comic book nerd growing up, and as I said before, I like heroes because they represent morality,” Joe says. “I don’t have a super villain T-shirt in my collection. Not even Loki, not even Darth Vader. Because of morality.

“I’m pro-Jedi, just so you know. I don’t believe in the Sith. I’m for the resistance, not the First Order in Star Wars. And when it comes to my allegiance with “Captain America: Civil War,” I am on Team Avengers. I don’t believe in Team Stark or Team Cap.”


Joe never takes photos of people unless they give permission.

He carries consent forms in his backpack.

“I’m very sensitive to the needs of others,” he says. “I’m worried about doing the right thing all the time.”


Joe has been planning this photo shoot for weeks.

His model, in a studio at Point Park University, is his former professor, April Friges.

“Turn your head a little bit to the side,” he instructs.


“Keep it down.”


“Put your hands there. Like you’re authority.”


“Fantastic. OK, keep it there. Now look away.”

He shoots, reviews his work on the camera’s screen, then moves forward.

“All right, guys, we’re going to Lawrence Hall.”

Down the elevator, across the street. Joe instructs Friges to stand in a floor-to-ceiling window. He runs outside.

“This is a remake of a shoot I did Oct. 26, 2010, and in August of 2012,” he says. “It’s like a window and a mannequin. It’s an homage to that. That’s the idea. I’ve been waiting to do it again for years.”

A large truck rolls by. Pedestrians pass with curious glances. Horns blare.

Joe pays no attention. He is too far inside his lens.

“OK, we’re good,” he says. “At long last, I can end this mission.”

He pulls out a consent form for Friges to sign.

“I’m happy with the photos,” he says. “I think it’s a first step forward to more art. It’s a day to get rid of old ideas and start new things.”


When Joe was 15, he slipped on ice.

He had to go to the doctor.

That’s when his diagnosis came out.

“I was like, I really don’t care,” Joe says. “I was like, you know what? Cool. My parents never let me use it as an excuse to not succeed at anything, so I was like, all right, cool. And I just moved on.”

Joe is high functioning. But the autism spectrum includes those who cannot function on their own. Joe knows this. And he knows he is fortunate.

“I’m still getting better at interacting with the world,” he says.

Joe collects Lego.

He built a Lego robot and put it in blue Jell-O, then photographed it.

Sometimes he goes Downtown, puts a Lego figure on a busy sidewalk, then lies down to take photos.

“I have a different way of doing things, and I dare to be different,” he says. “Because being different is cool. Being different is awesome.”

Joe likes telling stories, through photos and poetry, that are different.

“I did a story about a Yeti walking into a psychiatrist’s office,” he says. “He wants to make friends, he wants to share his snow cones with everyone, that sort of thing. I did a story about two sides fighting each other, so they decided to take off their body armor and take off their weapons.”


Question: What is it like living with autism?

Joe: Living with autism is sometimes a heavy burden. But people with autism are as much human as you and I are. Everyone is human; people have their quirks, so there’s no shame in living with it. Even though sometimes I wish I never had it, the fact of the matter is, I learned to accept it.

Question: How is it a heavy burden?

Joe: Because it can be difficult with social interaction. In my life, I was bullied because I did things differently. Since then, I learned to live with it. And you know what? I’m proud to live day by day, one at a time. So I never let autism hold me back.


Joe uses the word “benevolent” often.

Because he is determined to spread benevolence through a world that is often unkind.

Like a superhero would.


Joe works as a bagger at a grocery store.

He also sells prints and shoots professionally. He did an event for the Andy Warhol Museum. He shoots many events for the nonprofit Autism Connection of Pennsylvania.

“It’s his vision that we all treat each other as well as he treats people,” says Lu Randall, Autism Connection’s executive director. “We could all apply his love of benevolence to the world, and if we did, we’d be in a better place.”

The media call Randall when autism is in the headlines, as it was after the deadly mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in 2012.

But Adam Lanza, who gunned down 20 children at Sandy Hook, is not a true representative of the autistic community, Randall says.

Joe Smith is.

“There’s a myth that autistic people don’t have feelings or empathize, and I find the reverse is true,” she says. “People like Joe verbalize what a lot of people with autism aren’t able to: That they have feelings, and that they pick up on other people’s emotions, like barometers.”


Question: You say autism is a gift. Why?

Joe: It’s a pretty good gift. Because you get to see the world from different perspectives. Because you view the world differently. Because you see others’ perspectives. Because you become more sensitive to the needs of others. Anyone can be sensitive to the needs of others, whether you’re autistic or not.


When he was in high school, a psychologist said Joe was “too polite.”

“Like it was a negative,” Debra Smith says. “How can you be too polite? How foolish is that?”

At Point Park University, classroom discussions always circled back to morality, says Joe’s former professor, Christopher Rolinson.

“That was always the question he strove to answer: Am I doing right by this person? Am I approaching this in an ethical way?” Rolinson says.


Question: Joe, what should this story be about?

Joe: I want this story to say I’m not just a person who has autism, I’m a person who is a human being and has everyday struggles just like everyone else, whether I have autism or not. That’s an important message.

Question: Joe, should this story be about a photographer, or a photographer who has autism?

Joe: A photographer. With no labels. Just a photographer.





Information from: Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, https://pghtrib.com

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