A 22-year-old autistic photographer is inspiring other young people with special needs to start taking pictures as he prepares to publish his debut book.
Alfie Bowen, from East Anglia, took up wildlife photography several years ago as a way to express his love for animals.
It also became an outlet from the trauma he experienced as a teenager with autism.
From a young age, he was alienated from his peers, struggled in school and was relentlessly bullied at university.
But he said he was brought back from the brink of suicide by taking pictures of nature and animals.
His photos are now selling for £2,000 and his debut book, “Wild World | Nature Through An Autistic Eye” will be published by ACC Art Books in September next year.
But Alfie told the Standard that he is most proud of how he has been encouraging and mentoring younger kids with autism or additional needs to pick up a camera.
These children and teenagers have now taken some stunning shots, from raindrops and ladybirds to woodlice and dragonflies.
One parent said that her son is in “absolute awe” of Alfie, who has given him so much hope for what he can achieve.
Alfie said he was diagnosed with autism in 2009 and that high school was the “hardest period of my life”.
He said: “I realised how different I was, how alone I was, and it finally sunk in that I would be stuck with this disorder for the rest of my life.”
The 22-year-old said he was laughed at for constantly reading about animals.
He also felt like everyone around him was speaking a foreign language so he would stare at the clock on the wall, waiting for home time when he could return to his wildlife magazines.
Around this time, he also started taking photos with his mother Claire’s compact Lumix camera at the local zoo as a way to find another outlet for his “obsession with animals”.
“But I’d had enough of feeling alone and clock-watching, so I tried to develop an artificial interest in the more ‘normal’ topics of discussion amongst teenagers,” he said.
“I came home from school stressed and forced myself to research these topics — that were really of no interest to me — just so that I could attempt to chat with the others.
“But this ultimately failed and I was still shunned from their discussions.
“This alienation led to severe mental health issues, resulting in several suicide attempts and a refusal to leave my bedroom for over a week. I left that school a broken person.
“My social skills were non-existent, and I couldn’t stay in a busy room without feeling dizzy.”
After this, his mother put in months of hard work and launched multiple legal battles to get local authority funding for a private special needs school, Centre Academy East Anglia.
There he thrived, leaving with unconditional offers from five universities. However, after three weeks of relentless bullying at Middlesex University, he left with psychosis.
“It took several months to recover fully,” he said.
“But after taking some time out, I decided to launch my business and photographic career on a full-time basis, and haven’t looked back since — it has been a crazy couple of years.”
For Alfie, photography is not only a vital means for which he can express himself but has also become a springboard to become an advocate for people with autism.
“I am a firm believer that I wouldn’t be able to create the work that I do without it,” he said.
“I’m often told by others that they simply wouldn’t have seen the things I photograph.
“I think that’s the major advantage of having autism — it allows me to see everything in such amazing detail, and that in turn allows me to create work that transcends what most people see.”
Beyond his book, he has recently joined Castle Fine Art – the biggest fine-art publisher and gallery network in the UK – and his first collection will be launched across 40 galleries in spring.
“It is rather surreal to sit and think about how far I’ve come in just five-years,” Alfie said.
“It has been a roller-coaster ride of emotions and experiences, and I’ve certainly exceeded my expectations. Never underestimate an autistic person.”
Other children with autism are now looking up to Alfie as he encourages them to take their own wildlife photographs.
Joanne Bazneh, who has three children with additional needs, told the Standard about how much of an impact Alfie has had as a role model to her family.
Her children went to the same school as Alfie and she met him at the graduation ceremony, where he stood up and did a speech “with so much kindness and emotion there was not a dry eye”.
After the family saw him on a local news segment, she got in touch and he wrote the children a letter, sending them one of his giraffe photos – an animal they associate with their brother Mathew, who was stillborn.
Ms Bazneh said: “It means so much to them. They are absolutely in awe of Alfie now.
“They just want to be like him, which I’m sure Alfie never thought anyone would want because the poor child when he was younger was destroyed.”
Her 14-year-old Ben was always interested in photography so Alfie is now giving him advice on what camera to buy, and has offered to take him out photographing.
“My son could walk in Alfie’s footsteps because he’s got this older guy, a potential friendship and a potential coach. It’s a beautiful thing.”
Another mother, Emma, who wished to be referred only by her first name, also spoke about how Alfie has also been encouraging her daughter’s photography.
“My daughter is really passionate about the environment and really creative,” she said.
“It has been a real boost for her for Alfie to give her encouragement and ask to see her images. She also wants to talk to more people who know more and she is teaching me more about the natural world.”
From her 20 years as a youth worker, Emma said she had learned that all young people need “role models and someone to connect with”.
“Whether it is someone from a similar story, similar background, life experience, ethnicity, faith, disability or whatever – seeing that success and achievement is a great catalyst for change, self-improvement and encouragement.”
“Being autistic has great benefits for creativity such as attention to detail, noticing things others may not, but on the flip side there are other struggles that not everyone will understand and identify with so having Alfie who has some similar experiences is really helpful.”
On how he feels about becoming a role model for other children, Alfie said that “there is no greater gift” than making “another autistic child feel less lonely, less alien”.
“People with autism have the ability to create, to invent, to educate, and all that’s needed to unlock those vaults of talent is a little acceptance and friendship.
“I won’t stop until I’ve changed the world for autistics, and I know that sounds like a crazy idea, but I have proved people wrong my entire life, and I’ll do it again.”