One of Robert Wright’s earliest photographs was of a roadside curb.
His mother didn’t understand it at first, and he couldn’t explain it to her.
Born with holoprosencephaly, a defect that prevents the forebrain from dividing into hemispheres, Wright can’t talk or walk, and has extremely limited use of his hands. The 24-year-old communicates with his lively blue eyes — and through his photographs.
A digital camera is attached to an adjustable metal arm secured to his wheelchair; he triggers the shutter with a nod of his head, depressing a button affixed to his headrest.
The image of the curb he captured symbolizes the frustration he feels about the barriers he faces, his mother, Pat, explained. That realization came to her after she looked at the photograph through her son’s eyes.
“[A curb is] a jarring experience, or it’s blocking him from something he wants to do,” she said. “I guess that’s something that always amazes me, the obvious that I miss. He continually surprises me.”
Wright’s love of photography was discovered in 2007 while he was attending a Washington-Saratoga-Warren-Hamilton-Essex BOCES program.
“He and an aide looked through a book of occupations, and Robert indicated he wanted to photograph animals,” his mother said. “That started the search for the adaptive camera, and it went on from there.”
While attending a special education program at Mohonasen High School in Rotterdam, Wright studied under photographer Rick Crowe, who helped adapt a camera so he could use it. Since then, he has graduated from a simple point-and-shoot model to a more advanced Canon Rebel T1i, and his interest has extended beyond photographing animals.
On weekdays, the Waterford resident spends time at Brunswick Center Services, a group-based day habilitation program, where his educational program revolves around photography. The center staff is working with him and his mother to create a small photography business. He has a website, business cards are in the works, and so is a PayPal account, said Teri McGaughnea, senior coordinator of development and quality assurance at the center.
At a recent center fundraiser, a trio of Wright’s photographs sold for $250.
Wright regularly attends meetings of the Schenectady Photographic Society, and his work has received recognition in several of the group’s photo competitions.
The society’s members have given him tips on photo composition and helped his mom with the technical aspects of using the camera.
“Because I’m not a photographer, it has been a real journey,” she said with a laugh.
The society has also been a social asset.
“He’s just part of the club,” she explained. “Simple things, just a ‘hello,’ and finding out what he’s been doing. There’s concern when we miss meetings.”
In his early days as a photographer, Wright would take picture after picture, but now he’s getting more selective, his mother noted. She recalled some of his most memorable shots: a portrait of his grandfather at a Fourth of July parade; one of a boat on the Erie Canal in autumn.
“I guess more than the photos, it was the taking of the photos,” she said, the memories lighting her face.
Wright’s work is on display at the Brunswick Community Library and Brunswick Center Services.
His portraits of center clients brighten its lobby. His shots of pine cones, flowers and a field dotted with snow patches invite admirers to linger in the hall.
Wright goes on weekly photo shoots to places like parks, farms and historic sites. Cemeteries are a particular favorite, his mom said.
Sarah Cooke, a direct support specialist at Brunswick Center Services, often assists Wright on his shoots. She points at potential photo subjects and asks if he approves.
“He’ll look up for ‘yes,’ or if it’s not good for him, he’ll look to the side,” she explained. “I’ll ask him if he wants me to zoom in or out and then he’ll tell me ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ ”
Cooke said Wright is great to work with.
“He is a ball of joy. He can make you laugh. He knows what he wants to do. It’s just awesome,” she said.