A Conversation with Photographer TIM ARCHIBALD on His ECHOLILIA Project

By Sarah Heikkinen

Spring 2014

An Echo, as we all know, is “something (such as a feature or quality) that repeats or resembles something else,” and the term Lilia evokes the flower: a lily. When combined, these two separate words create a sense of both the familiar and the unfamiliar, leaving one with a feeling of beauty and strangeness, of repetition and rebirth. It also reminds one of the word Echolalia, if one is familiar with that medical term, commonly bandied about in the autistic community, which is “the uncontrollable and immediate repetition of words spoken by another person.”

Timothy Archibald’s project, ECHOLILIA, explores aspects of life that everyone is familiar with: childhood, growing up, creativity, and the relationship between a parent and their child. With the help and creative input of his autistic son Eli, Timothy Archibald has created a photographic collection that showcases the power of familial love and bonding through art. I spoke with him about the project, and how it has affected both him and his son.

Sarah Heikkinen: How did this project come about?

Timothy Archibald: ECHOLILIA ended up being the project, as clichéd as it sounds, that literally changed photography for me.

A collection of photographs I worked on collaboratively with my autistic son and all shot in our home, these simple photographs were raw and primitive. My son would define the poses, based on things we’d observe he’d do during the arc of his day, and I would operate the camera. They reminded me of a beginning student’s photo project: simple props, window lighting, just a suburban dad making photographs with his son in this quiet child mindset. The results seemed to be photographs made out of nothing except the ability to pay attention and listen to someone else.

The results didn’t look like my photographs as all. Being the greedy artist I am, always looking for something new, I immediately took credit for these unusual looking images.

SH: How did you come up with the name Echolilia?

TA: There is a word in autism circles that is similar, if not exact: Echolalia. I liked it immediately, but it did seem to be very medical sounding to me. But if I spelled it differently–ECHOLILIA–it became perfect: Echo, which is the repetition of sound in nature that we all know, and Lily, a pretty flower. And the word would be a word that people would have no baggage with–it was relatively unheard of. My hope was that the word would become the photographs–the tone, the vibe in those photographs.

SH: What inspired photographs like the plastic tub or Elijah sitting on the bed with a paper bag over his head?

TA: There were things I’d see Eli do as some form of self soothing, or sensory stimuli, or something like that. Things that would seem to enhance the senses, enhances sounds or sensory feelings that are in many of the shots–scraping his back against the ground cover in the front yard–all of those things.

Elijah In A Fairytale:

Eli and his brother were playing around with this big plastic storage bin and Eli realized he could just fit into it. He was messing around with this discovery, but it was evening, it was dark in the house, and the kids were all tired–so there really wasn’t a photograph there. I brought it up to him as something we might want to try in the day. The next day he was home from school early, the sun was pouring in the window, and the tub was still empty. He and his brother and I were home. His brother was watching a video in the room as we pushed the tub into the light. Eli got in, and I gave direction: lower your head, bring your elbow in, move your knee. With hyper focus he made these movements. The shoot was over in 7 minutes.

Manila Envelope:

Eli had discovered a bubblewrap-lined manilla envelope in the house would fit perfectly over his head. Something about that he liked–the sounds, the feeling around his head, something about it was comforting or familiar. I never asked why with these things, I’d just accept them. Seeing the envelope on his head looked metaphorical to me–some unknown manifestation of the senses. We agreed to make a photograph of him doing that in his room when the light came in. It really was as simple as that.

SH: You said in an interview that Elijah contributes a significant amount of creative input in the process of shooting and developing the pictures. How do you think this is affecting the two of you separately and as a father/son duo?

TA: Well, at that time the big thing it gave us was the ability to be equals. We weren”t really father and son, me correcting him, me trying to make him behave or something. We were equals, both trying to make this photograph. Both kind of smiling in awe when we looked at the back of the camera and realized we made this beautiful photograph that seemed to have been handed to us. We both got to taste something like mutual respect I think.

SH: Have you seen a change in Elijah since the start of the project?

TA: Right now Eli is twelve–he’s gone through three other obsessions since that time–all kid appropriate and all his own: SF Giants Baseball, Apple Computer, and now he manages a Minecraft server. These are his–he doesn’t need a tether to his Dad right now. But then? I think we both needed it. Now pictures are simply family snapshots as they are in families all over the world.

SH: Do you feel that you’ve changed?

TA: Have I changed? Yes, for sure. I learned the power that comes when you give someone a voice and the power that comes from listening very closely. I had always known the power of “the story.” Not my story, but the story in general. As a photographer I”d travel great distances to find those stories. Here I had a story in my home and I really just needed to listen. I needed to pay close attention, give my son the tools to have this voice. And really I can apply those lessons every day to everything.

SH: Where do you see this project going in the future?

TA: This project, like many things creatives do with family, didn’t really start as a project at all. It was just a thing woven into your day. Kid has problems, Dad’s a photographer, of course the camera is going to come out. But there was a point when it became clearly collaborative, clearly owned by us both. It was our thing, our hobby, a project we were building together. There was a fuel–some attempt to figure something out. And once we got those answers, I think we knew we were done.

Timothy Archibald is a photographer who specializes in “human, humorous, and subversive commercial and editorial photography.”


Timothy Archibald”s Official Site

Written by Sarah Heikkinen

Photography by & Courtesy of Timothy Archibald

Design by Mina Darius


Photography by & Courtesy of Timothy Archibald

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