Debbie Rasiel: Empowering the Autistic Community through Photography by Anna Blumberg

Debbie Rasiel

Debbie Rasiel’s studio is located in Manhattan’s historic Flatiron district, tucked into the corner of a web design startup office on the building’s fourth floor. Large pieces of paperboard cover the studio’s windows, preventing any light from infiltrating the space so Rasiel can meticulously edit and evaluate her photographs for color, tone, and clarity. Her desk is situated in the center of the room, flanked on either side by Rasiel’s contrasting artistic worlds. One wall displays the colorful exuberance of her Miami series, while the opposite wall sets out the monochromatic sincerity of her most recent project, Picturing Autism.

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A photographer and art historian, Rasiel is also a mother of three children, including a 25-year-old son with autism. Several years ago, Rasiel was hired to photograph special education teacher trainings around the world for the Global Autism Project. Despite the geographic and cultural divides between them, she immediately felt a connection with the parents of the children she photographed, finding that they grappled with many of the same issues. Inspired by this connection, she spent two years photographing children with autism in various locations across the globe. The resulting works capture both the cultural divisions and commonalities experienced by autistic children and their caretakers around the world.

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At one point during our conversation, Rasiel describes the shame and isolation people in certain societies experience as a result of having a special needs child. Although she initially entered the Global Autism Project without any particular goals, Rasiel now hopes to build a global community through her photographs, which she would like to function as a source of empowerment for families burdened by culturally imposed feelings of humiliation and guilt.

In response to such cultural sensitivities, Rasiel caters her artistic practice to her subjects’ wishes. “From the minute I walk into anyone’s house,” she explains, “even if it’s a picture of my foot, if it’s blurry, they will see every single file, no matter what – so everyone knows what I took. I want them to sit with it, have it. I need to know that they’re okay with it, and if at any point they’re not, they can also decide to not let me print.” In this way, Rasiel aims for her process to be collaborative and built upon a foundation of mutual trust between artist and subject. She continues, “To allow them power, I have to give up some of my power. The possibility that you will never show the best picture you ever took is a painful one, and you have to live with that.”

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Currently in her third year as a member of SOHO20 Gallery, Rasiel prides herself on being a feminist advocate within the organization. Reflecting on women’s representation within the art world, she believes that feminism is still very relevant, and she values being part of a gallery with strong feminist roots.

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