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Barbara Zanon

BY Elisabeth Biondi, November 1, 2019

Barbara Zanon’s latest photography project started four years ago, when she began casually taking pictures of her friends’ twins. The family lived in her parents’ neighborhood in Umbria, and when the couple, Emilia and Francesco, were told that their twins, as well as their youngest child, born a year after the twins, were all three on the autism spectrum, Zanon decided, with the family’s permission, to photograph theirlives. She has made it her long-term project to tell the story of daily life with three autistic children.

Zanon is a professional portrait photographer and photojournalist who lives in Venice, but this project is dedicated to capturing the family’s moments of love, happiness, and frustration. In Italy, autism is little discussed, which, Zanon felt, was all the more reason for her to communicate the family’s joys, struggles, and rewards.

When Zanon showed me her pictures during the Les Rencontres D’Arles Portfolio Reviews, I was immediately drawn to them. They revealed a cheerful, but deeply stressed family with a difficult life. Both parents have demanding jobs and are dependent on the assistance of relatives and friends to help themmanage. Zanon’spictures, though, radiate with joy. She photographs the family’s ups and downs, and in her pictures, the children are sometimes happy and other times reclusive. Her photographs reveal their personalitiesas well as their parents’ resilience. One picture, of the twins hanging onto their mother’s hands, is particularly touching. It is a simple, yet powerful image that telegraphs the children’s need for support, probably for the rest of their lives. Zanon mentions her admiration for Don McCullin’s work, and the influence of his humanistic approach can be discerned in her photographs.

I have seen a number of photo essays that focus on autism, especially in America, and they are often depressing and sometimes overwrought. Zanon’s pictures are serious but also refreshingly direct. She obviously connects with the children, especially Luisa, who is 13 – a teenager physically but mentally a child. Her pictures of emotional moments reach my heart – like a close-up of Luisa trying to shut herself off from the pain of overstimulation. But her photographs also express the rewards of care and love, as well as the complexity of this family’s life.