About a boy

Melanie Burford, a New Zealand photojournalist in Norway, turns her lens on intangible subjects: her son’s autism, her family’s search for belonging.

Written by       Photographed by Melanie Burford

Melanie Burford

“Maybe I became a photographer because it allowed me to step into the shadows and observe,” writes Melanie Burford in the diary accompanying this series. “Never being on stage or in the audience but in this strange place that floated around the edges of human experience, trying to capture fleeting moments as I waited and watched.”

In 2020, that changed. The pandemic struck, just as Burford and her Danish husband were adjusting to the recent autism diagnosis of their elder son, Nikolaj. As Nikolaj mustered the courage to tell his classmates about being autistic, Burford began to find ways of depicting her son’s way of seeing the world.

“Autism isn’t often visually represented in a kind way, which makes me sad,” she writes. “There are a million different variables to autism—almost like a kaleidoscope of colours with strengths and challenges unique to each person.”

Burford’s pictures of Nikolaj are spacious, a reflection of his desire to reduce the sensory input of the world. Their collaboration culminated in a portrait of Nikolaj immersed in the bath, water embracing him, closing everything else out. Meanwhile, Burford’s portraits of her younger son, Oskar are different: he craves sensory stimulation.

Visual themes emerged: muted colours, isolated landscapes, and hands—especially after Nikolaj’s fingers became so chapped by regular COVID-related sanitising that he had to wear gloves at night to help his skin heal.

Each image records a waypoint along the family’s journey, accompanied by Burford’s diary entries, excerpts of which are featured on the following pages.

“Our family is not just about autism and neither is our son,” she writes. “But what we all have in common is a family that doesn’t quite fit. Our family is made up of one Dane, one New Zealander and two New Yorkers who live in a small town in Norway, far from our countries of birth. Both our sons have found ways of anchoring themselves to the land, defining their own sense of home.”

“We live in a fairytale, surrounded by mountains and snow. Nature has been the place our family has gone to heal.”
“Nikolaj and I collaborated to create an image that celebrates who he is. For three nights, we worked out colours and light, and he directed me on how he wanted to be photographed. “He wanted to share his love of water, how he feels empowered and yet soothed by floating in the calm blue of silence, muting the chaos of the world.”
“I wish I could see more, experience more, understand more of his world. He just wants to be loved and accepted for who he is, which is, at the end of the day, what we all dream of.”

More by

More by Melanie Burford