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Arne Svenson's photos get to the nonverbal core

| Wednesday, Feb. 29, 2012

A year ago, when New York-based photographer Arne Svenson was the artist-in-residence at Pittsburgh's Wesley Spectrum Highland School, he learned first-hand how difficult photographing some children can really be.

The school is an approved private school for students with special needs, grades 4 through 12. And even though Svenson hadn't been to the school prior to his residency, the kids and teachers were already familiar with his work, thanks to his book "Sock Monkeys: (200 out of 1,863)" (2002, Ideal World Books, $24.95), which included fictional biographies by various writers of specific sock monkeys Svenson had photographed.

Under the guidance of teacher Lynda Abraham-Braff and the education department staff of the Andy Warhol Museum, the school had been using Svenson's photographs of sock monkeys as a means to explore, understand and hone nonverbal facial-recognition skills.

Now it was Svenson's turn. Although years earlier he worked in special education, this was the first time the photographer created a comprehensive body of photographs that addresses and illustrates specific characteristics of developmentally disabled individuals.

"In a way, it's like coming home," he says. "I have finally been able to combine my passion for photography with my equally passionate interest in working with exceptional people."

Svenson describes the photo sessions with the children as "wonderfully intense. Having only 10 minutes with each child forced us into highly creative methods of eliciting expressive responses," he says.

"The staff of the school would shout out memory cues, 'Hey Chris, did you finally get those new (live) chickens?' " And Chris would smile," Svenson says. "Or, I would ask them to shut their eyes and then yell loudly, thereby startling the child into a look of authentic surprise."

Svenson's residency led to the exhibition "About Face," currently on display at the Andy Warhol Museum. The exhibit is part of an ongoing partnership with Svenson, the Warhol, the Cognitive Psychology Department at the University of Victoria, British Columbia, and Wesley Spectrum Highland. The goal is to teach facial recognition skills to students within the autism spectrum.

"Many children on the autistic spectrum lack the capability to recognize, categorize and exhibit facial expressions," Svenson says. "They do not instinctively know when, or why, a person is frowning, smiling, sad, happy."

This very distinctive trait sets them apart from the general population and can make communication with the world at large extraordinarily difficult and frustrating. The staff at the Wesley Spectrum Highland School have been working intensely with the same group of children for more than a year on the specific subject of facial expression recognition. "My project was merely one component of this multiphasic approach," Svenson says.

The exhibit features two-dozen sets of large-format photographs, mounted on aluminum at a 55-degree angle as if in an open book. From one angle, the viewer sees only a portrait of the student, while from another angle one views an open spread, which reveals an expressive image of the student on one side and an accompanying image of something that looks to be an "emotional motivator" on the other. The motivators range from images of puppies and kittens to a snake, a fistfight, even a dead dog.

Svenson did not use these actual images as the motivators, instead choosing to elicit responses through more subtle, verbal cues.

At the end of the photo sessions, Svenson and school staff had the kids fill out a worksheet listing those things, occurrences, people, etc. that made them happy, sad, angry, scared and surprised. "I then created imagery that would illustrate the answers the children had given, thereby creating the motivators," he says. "The images were drawn from my own work, photographs, illustrations by others and text."

The images, which are in some cases quite terrifying (like a snarling wolf, for example), are arranged opposite the most emotive (and relatable) portrait of each subject. Svenson says that, in this way, "By booking the photos, I have tried to create a mirror wherein that which motivates the subject is a direct reflection of his or her face," he says. "And hopefully I have, with the help of my brilliant subjects, created multidimensional portraits of children who are often viewed through the one-dimension of their diagnosis."

When the exhibit opened at the Warhol last month, the children in the photographs came to see it. Svenson says their response "was tremendous."

"For a population who traditionally do not willingly communicate with each other, there was enough excitement, chatter and crosstalk to be deafening," he says.

"Seeing their likenesses hanging in the context of a museum made a change in them, these kids I'd known for a year suddenly seemed more mature, more knowing. As one child put it, 'What are the chances a picture of me would be hanging in a museum• One in a million?' Eventually, he and I decided the chances were at least 1 in 5 million."

Additional Information:

'Arne Svenson: About Face'

When: Through May 9. Hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays; until 10 p.m. Fridays

Admission: $20; $10 for senior citizens; $10 for children and students

Where: Andy Warhol Museum, North Side

Details: 412-237-8300 or

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