An artist’s lesson learned

I sometimes forget why I am a photographer. Today I was reminded watching Tommy Carey open his first semi-professional, Digital SLR camera.


I started working with Tommy about a year and a half ago teaching a photography class at The Arc of St. John’s, a school for intellectually and physically disabled adults.

After only a few months, the class of about ten students dwindled down to five. Those who stuck around liked to take photos— while others preferred the social experience— but Tommy, he stuck around because he unknowingly found his god-given talent.

Tommy is completely deaf in both ears. He speaks very little sign language but diligently tries to communicate through his own version. Tommy’s language includes rocket-launching hand signals, thumbs up, tapping on his watch and a huge smile.

Looking at Tommy’s photos, you notice his sense of composition. He unknowingly utilizes the photographer’s rule of thirds. He gets down on his knees. He follows the clouds and is drawn to contrails. He zooms in and out, shooting both wide-shots and close-ups. He does this with no intention of perfection— no pressure to be creative— through an innocence that is very fleeting to most artists.


Let’s face it. Most of us are extremely hard on ourselves. Tommy is not. He just keeps shooting. He is free from the fear of failure and competition; he isn’t trying to be the best. He just is.


Today is a special day for Tommy Carey because he is opening his new camera. It has been sitting under Mary Williamson’s desk at The Arc for two weeks now.

He enters her office with his usual big smile. He makes a hand gesture of clicking a camera’s shutter.

We show him the package and Mary repeats while pointing at the box, “This is yours, Tommy. This is yours.”

He opens up every compartment of the box, studying all of the contents, even the plastic filling. Finally he reaches for the camera. He looks at it. I am unsure if he understands yet that this is his. I am witnessing a miracle. 

“This is yours, Tommy. This is yours.”

Tommy doesn’t know his portfolio competed against other “non-disabled” artists and that he is the only one who received this grant from the Jacksonville Community Foundation. As Tommy poses with his new $1200 camera, to him, it is just another day.


I show him the telephoto and wide-angle lenses and how to interchange them on the camera’s body. Line up the dots (I point) and twist (I exaggerate with my wrist). He gets it immediately. (Not to mention, this is a man who can take apart and put back together any car engine or clock.)

What little doubt I had in Tommy’s understanding of his equipment disappeared.


On my drive back from The Arc, I thought about his warm smile. His hand pointing nervously to his watch at 12:15, telling me he is late for lunch, photos can wait. Even with his new camera, there was no pressure to go out and shoot. Everything in Tommy’s world is scheduled. It is in perfect composition, lined by his rule of thirds. When it is noon, he eats. When it is photography class, he shoots.

He lives by the ticking of his watch and contrails in the sky, with a sense of contentment unknown to most of us.

I cannot wait to see the artist Tommy Carey will become. This is why we are photographers: to share our own sense of quiet, our own sense of this world.


Tommy has been given a chance that not many people in their late 50’s have, especially one who is disabled. He has been given a chance to share his god-given gift that potentially could have been hidden his entire life.

It makes me think of all the other adults roaming The Arc’s halls. What other talents are being hidden? The disabled in our society are so often ostracized and ignored. I am so proud of Tommy for breaking free—even if he doesn’t realize that he has.

So what has Tommy taught me? Tommy has taught me to find my own sense of “artists innocence” and stop comparing myself to other photographers and other styles. He has taught me to just get out there and shoot—as long as it isn’t lunchtime.


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