Photographers' Blog

A child’s autistic world

Havana, Cuba

By Enrique de la Osa

When I arrived early at the Dora Alonso School, Julio came over, shook my hand and gave me the latest weather report. He did it with such precision that I didn’t know what to say. Julio is 24 years old and a die-hard meteorology aficionado. But instead of working as an expert predictor of the weather, he was making a living sweeping the school’s patios. Julio is also a patient at the school – he suffers from autism.

The Dora Alonso School specializes in treating children who suffer from autism spectrum disorders. The building housing the school was a military facility before the Revolution, and it was inaugurated as a school for children with special needs ten years ago by Cuba’s former President Fidel Castro. The school is surrounded by a lush green garden and there is no outside noise. It is extremely peaceful. More than 40 children, ranging from the age of four to six spend their days at the school with a group of therapists, doctors, physiotherapists and psychologists who not only work with the children but prepare parents and teachers as well.

The disorders can range from severe mental retardation with a profound inability to communicate, to relatively mild symptoms combined with some high levels of function such as those seen in people with Asperger’s. When I saw the students I found they looked physically normal, but seemed apathetic. They live in a world different from others. In Cuba we are used to children running around, laughing, crying, and doing everything with lots of noise and bravado; they wear their emotions on their sleeves. But these children were quiet and detached. They were completely unfazed by my presence and the camera, showing no curiosity.

The teachers, almost all women, were cheerful and deeply caring, and I was impressed by the enormous amount of affection the therapists showed to the children as they tried to make them feel at home. In class the children painted, listened to the sound of musical instruments, and with the help of a therapist they did movements in front of a mirror. In one classroom two boys were working at computers in front of a mirror. The mirror was positioned in a way so they could recognize themselves. They concentrated completely and worked on the computers with great ease.

The children do a lot of activities outside the school as well. I went with a small group to the aquarium. The National Aquarium of Havana each week hosts groups of children on guided tours where they learn to interact with dolphins and seals as part of their therapy. The therapists say this kind of therapy helps the patients to interact with others, despite their disabilities.

Coffin therapy

By Sheng Li

After many days trying to set-up an interview at the Ruoshui Mental Health Clinic, which resides within a commercial apartment building in Shenyang, China, I finally received a call from the owner on December 12 who granted me the access and opportunity to photograph one of their “death experience therapy” patients.

An hour later, I found myself in the so-called “death experience room”, a 10-square-metre room with nothing but a coffin on the floor. On the wall there was a poster of Jesus holding a newborn baby illuminated with gloomy blue lights. My first impression? Quite intimidating.

According to 50-year-old therapist Mr. Tang Yulong, the clinic opened in 2009 and since then there have been more than a thousand people who have done the death experience therapy. The therapy costs 2000 yuan ($320) and usually lasts 4 to 5 hours, during the duration of which the patient is required to lie in a coffin while his/her relatives read “epitaphs” or give speeches nearby. The patient also needs to write down his/her feelings and share with therapists and family. Mr. Tang said that many of them burst into tears when they are “resurrected.” He believes it is an extreme but efficient method to make people realize the value of their lives.

Signs of hope through music in Iran

For some people, here is the end of the world, but for some who live here, it is paradise.

The Kahrizak Charity Foundation in southern Tehran, is home to hundreds of mentally and physically impaired people who range in age from young and old. In this place, you can feel life and death, joy and woe, and people who love each other. For these people music is the only positive thing.

The first time I went to Kahrizak, I expected to meet people who didn’t know what they wanted in their life and were just waiting for the angel of death to arrive but it was not as I had presumed.

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