“W-H-Y-A-R-E-Y-O-U-H-E-R-E” he asks me, pointing to each letter on a letterboard to spell out the question.
I tell him his photos have drawn me in, and I want to write a story about him.
He’s clearly excited by my interest. He’s unable to sit still, and lets out strings of his own sounds that are both melodic and brutish at once. He goes on to ask me which of his photos I like.
For Forrest Sargent, a picture is worth a thousand words left unsaid. Sargent, 22, is autistic and unable to speak. He can communicate through a letterboard, but because the task requires training and patience, it limits his world to a very small circle.
So instead of telling others his thoughts, he shows them the world as he sees it, through his photos.
It began when Forrest asked his parents, out of the blue, for a camera for his 19th birthday. He’d never before even taken a photo, let alone shown interest.
“We were surprised,” says mother Rebecca Sargent. “We thought he’d ask for a shirt or a hat, the same things he always asks for.”
I ask him why he for asked a camera back then.
“I wanted to have a way to show my feelings and my real mind,” he tells me, one letter at a time.
Forrest’s parents installed a grip handle at the bottom of a point-and-shoot camera to help him manage. Forrest suffers from medication-induced tremors which, coupled with his fleeting focus, makes steadiness a challenge.
“He has trouble with it, so I’ve indoctrinated him to take five pictures of everything, so one of them might be good,” says his father, Denny Sargent.
Forrest takes his camera along on walks and hikes, capturing flowers, landscapes, and people, surprising even his parents with his work.
“It’s funny. He’ll take pictures of something, and I’ll think, ‘Well, that was a waste.’ But then it’ll actually turn out pretty cool,” says Denny.
But perhaps most surprising is Forrest’s own interpretation of his subjects. The titles he assigns to some of his photos are introspective, some even poetic. He calls a photo of red and white flowers “Noisy but Nice.” “Wanderingsoul” portrays a bright orange koi swimming in murky water. Then there’s “Some Ways to Live,” a photo of a moss-stained wooden platform.
Forrest sells his photos at art galleries and online on his website. Proceeds benefit a trust fund designated for his care.
‘He said, ‘I thought I was talking’’
When autism suddenly surfaced at the age of 2, Forrest, who had been a very social toddler, lost his words, and with them, his life. Unheard and unknown, he became angry and violent, biting and scratching those near him. Eventually his parents, despite their overwhelming guilt, put him in a group home.
“We had tried everything—literally everything. And nothing was working,” says Denny.
Forrest lived, misunderstood and alone, for years. Caretakers told his parents nothing could be done for non-verbal patients. But Denny and Rebecca never gave up, trying every known way to reach their son.
Then five years ago, they came across the rapid-prompting method and the letterboard. They began teaching him themselves how to use the letterboard to answer yes-no questions. After months of repetition, they finally moved on to five-letter words.
These days, Forrest communicates in full, thoughtful sentences. When I tell him my favorite photo of his is of the sky, he tells me, “Yes, I like the sky. It is a lot like my mind. It is always changing.”
The letterboard has allowed outsiders to learn, for the first time, not only what Forrest wants and needs, but also what he’s capable of.
“They went from saying he was retarded and had a 5-year-old IQ, to he was doing algebra,” says Denny of Forrest’s high school teachers. “By the time we got him going (letterboard), it was late in his school life. But it was amazing. They’d read books to him, then ask him questions. They did all of Harry Potter, and they did all of Lord of the Ring. So this is not a stupid kid.”
Since he began using the letterboard, Forrest’s behavior has grown dramatically less violent, according to his parents.
“Most of his anger and aggression was due to the fact that he was bright, and he was more or less locked in. He had no way to communicate, and he’d get frustrated,” says Denny.
And Forrest himself has made one big discovery about himself—one that helped his parents understand why their son had been so angry.
After Denny got an iPhone, he began recording the sounds Forrest makes and sharing them on Facebook. One of his Icelandic friends was fascinated by Forrest’s vocalization. That friend turned out to be a keyboardist who often works with the musician Bjork.
“It sounded musical to him, and unusual, and interesting,” says Denny. “And he did a song wrapped around it, integrating it.”
The musician played the piece at a concert, showing photos of Forrest as the backdrop. But when Forrest’s parents played it for him at home, he was not happy.
“He was shocked to hear what he sounded like. “He said, ‘I thought I was talking,’” says Denny.
It took some time before Forrest grew comfortable with the song, his parents said, and he has yet to find peace with his disability.
“He’s not used to hearing himself. He gets embarrassed,” says Denny, adding Forrest wants things 22-year-olds want, like a motorcycle and love. ”He asked me, ‘How do I get a girlfriend?’ It’s just heartbreaking.”
‘Our goal … is to get him as far along as we can’
For Denny and Rebecca, Forrest’s pictures hold a thousand hopes.
They’ve watched Forrest evolve and progress since he began using the letterboard. Through his photos, they’ve learned how their son sees the world. And they’ve begun teaching him life lessons like the concept of money and even sex education.
“According to the psychiatrist at Fircrest (Residential Habilitation Center where Forrest lives), his neural pathways are actually healing,” says Denny. “So he’s starting to add more vocabulary, a little bit more speaking, and (he is) a lot more focused. And things like facial expressions are progressing.”
Since Forrest graduated from high school, his only option has been to live in a protective environment; his days include no classes or lessons to help him develop. But thanks to his parents’ efforts, he continues to progress.
And Forrest, in turn, has been anxious to learn.
“He said, ‘What are those decorations?’ I said, ‘What…? What decorations?’” says Rebecca. “And Denny figured it out: ‘Oh, you mean beads!”’
Forrest had wanted to try beading, but didn’t know how to ask. He later made his mother a necklace of beads.
Another new interest is cooking, says Rebecca. Forrest asked for his own pots and pans, and likes to help out in the kitchen.
“And it’s those little things that without a letterboard, we would have no idea,” says Rebecca.
Their next focus: gardening, says Denny.
“Because he can weed, he can water. So we’re trying to teach him a skill,” he says.
With each lesson, Forrest’s parents feel a little more optimistic about his future.
“Knowing that when we die, you know, he’s going to have to go on. And that’s just life. So our goal, of course, is to get him as far along as we can,” says Denny.
Forrest Sargent’s works are being showcased at ArtWorks Gallery in Edmonds this month as a part of Northwest Special Artists‘ “The Colors of My World” exhibit. Forrest plans to attend the exhibit opening on Saturday, Sept. 7 from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. to discuss his work.
In 2012, Mike Hodge, then a student at the Seattle Film Institute, made a short film about Forrest as part of his course work. Watch: