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, 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?

About the author

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