Stephen Wiltshire - The Human Camera

Five’s acclaimed documentary strand continues with another remarkable tale of human experience. This film profiles autistic artist Stephen Wiltshire, who is able to draw massively detailed landscapes entirely from memory. The film charts his progress from childhood to international success as an artist, and shows how he has overcome his autism to cope with social situations and achieve a limited form of independence.

Stephen Wiltshire is a 33-year-old autistic man with an extraordinary talent. He is one of less than 100 people in the world who is recognised as an autistic savant. Whereas some savants excel in mathematics or music, Stephen is an accomplished artist, and is capable of producing highly accurate drawings of buildings and cities after seeing them just once.

Professor Simon Baron-Cohen, one of the country’s leading experts in autism, claims Stephen is remarkable because he represents a combination of outstanding abilities, including spatial awareness, memory and attention to detail. “It may be that some people would have some of these skills, but not all of them,” he says. “In Stephen, they’ve all come together and he must be one in a million.”

Although Stephen is today a quiet and confident young man, he endured a difficult childhood as family and teachers struggled to cope with his autism – a condition that was, at the time, very poorly understood and rarely diagnosed. An anxious, mute child, Stephen only expressed himself in screaming fits, until teachers realised that drawing not only calmed him down – it also revealed an unimaginable talent. “I calmed myself down, because then I could do drawing and become sensible,” Stephen recalls.
Cityscapes and buildings quickly became Stephen’s artistic focus, possibly because they represent the kind of stability, solidity and repetition that autistic people often crave. In a short space of time, Stephen became internationally renowned for his strikingly detailed and technically accurate drawings, and since his teenage years he has travelled the world sketching famous buildings and cities. He receives commissions from high-profile clients and even owns his own gallery near Trafalgar Square.

However, Stephen’s former head teacher, Jude Ragan, is quick to point out that his artistic success is largely possible thanks to the way in which he has overcome the crippling social insecurity that characterises autism. “It is extraordinary that he has learned to travel by himself, because he will no doubt have a high level of anxiety of any change, anything different, anything that might change,” she says. Today, Stephen’s life remains dominated by a fixed routine, in which even simple interactions such as a buying a sandwich can seem daunting and complex.

Whilst Stephen’s work has captivated people around the world, the debate continues as to whether an autistic person, who can grasp technical skills so well, is capable of creating something original. Are Stephen’s pictures accomplished technical drawings or novel works of art? His family friend, Michael Vincent, is one of many who believes the latter. “I defy anyone to look at his pieces and not to come away moved or touched or inspired,” he says.

Now Stephen is about to face one of his greatest challenges yet. He has five days to draw a four-metre-long panorama of London based on a 15-minute helicopter ride above the capital. Can he accurately reproduce the skyline of his home city solely from memory?

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