“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.”