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The Value of Caring

Julia Walker Thomas / 2010 Mountain Workshops

Katie Caswell shoots hoops in a corn storage barn where her father put up a hoop. Katie, 19, diagnosed with autism at 3, lives with her parents on their corn and soybean farm.

Relationships provide the currency in photojournalism that result in access that pays off in intimacy.

Photojournalist Julia Walker Thomas used that currency when participating in a five-day workshop in Kentucky.

The Mountain Workshops, running for 35 years and counting, documents daily life in one Kentucky town each fall. In doing so, it provides an opportunity for a diverse body of visual journalists to improve their storytelling skills, while being led by esteemed journalists in the industry.

The workshops resonate with each of the participants differently. For Julia, after two days of pursuing a story about a family caring for an autistic teen in Upton, Ky., her approach and attitude paid dividends — the lifelong kind.

“It’s hard because they don’t really do a lot, aside from tending to her,” Julia said about Katie Caswell. “That’s all that they can do.”

But despite that seemingly limiting point of view, a photographer had her “moment.”

That came when Debbie Caswell, Katie’s mother, talked with Julia about some common ground they shared, the loss of a loved one.

“At that point, she realized I was a person, and that I wasn’t just a camera floating around — that I’m a human being and that I have emotions. That’s when we both got close to each other. Humans care for one another.”

Julia Walker Thomas / 2010 Mountain Workshops

Katie often plays the keyboard in her father's room at night. "Music is a big part of her life," Debbie Caswell, Katie's mother, said. "Even before she was born, I would sing hymns to her and waltz with her in my belly."

Julia Walker Thomas / 2010 Mountain Workshops

Debbie Caswell gives her daughter, Katie, a kiss before bed. Debbie, who assists Katie with most of her daily routine, helps her bathe and brush her teeth before bed. "I know that God doesn't give us anything we can't handle," Debbie said. "I would stand on my head all day if she asked me to. I love that little girl."

Julia Walker Thomas / 2010 Mountain Workshops

Katie and her father, Steve, jump on the trampoline after school. "I had heard of the word, seen a couple movies about it -- that was about it," Steve said about autism. "Now, obviously, I'm an expert."

Julia acknowledges that a lot of photojournalism experiences keep shooter and subjects at arm’s length. Sometimes that’s necessary, but when the photographer gets to cross that bridge, it changes the dynamic of storytelling.

“You don’t really get that close to your subjects and you talk about the process of their lives and not what they’re really experiencing emotionally,” Julia said.

“I care about learning about Katie. I haven’t ever been close to someone with autism.”

To see highlights from the forty-eight photojournalists who participated in this year's Mountain Workshops, click HERE.

Click HERE to see more of Julia's images from her time with the Caswell family. To explore 'mountains' of other stories, multimedia, or to learn more about the Mountain Workshops, visit mountainworkshops.org.

This article first appeared on mountainworkshops.org.