Boy's eye for photos speaks volumes for him

FOREST GROVE — A Crayola camera dangling from one hand, Juan "Junior" Dominguez-Vidal walks on the balls of his feet down the Fern Hill Elementary hallway.

The stoic 6-year-old scans the walls, glances into classrooms and watches other students go by, but he doesn't raise his camera.

He's taken more than 1,200 pictures since November. That's when his special education teacher Gaye Avery-Grubbs noticed his fascination with cameras and bought him one, thinking it would help develop his fine motor skills.

She fully expected Junior to return with a series of random photos. What she saw, however, was beyond the level of most elementary school children, much less a little boy with microcephaly, a disorder that causes children to have smaller than average heads and, in Junior's case, the inability to speak, among other developmental delays.

The photos had purpose, Avery-Grubbs said. She saw patterns, themes and collections of colors and shapes.

"We have been given a glimpse into how he sees the world," she said.

Many of the photos showed Junior's ability to think abstractly, a talent rarely seen in elementary age children, said Kristine Dabbs, Junior's regular first grade classroom teacher.

"It's almost like he has a telephoto lens in his eyes," Dabbs said.

Instead of seeing what is simply in front of him, a plant for example, Junior sees the patterns in the leaves or the structures of the stems. He takes those photos and looks for similar patterns in other things.

"We are able to tell through his photos that he's learning," Dabbs said.

Asked if the teachers were seeing more in the photos than was really there, Avery-Grubbs said, "The alternative is to not recognize that he has a gift."

Among Junior's collection is a series of photos informally dubbed a "Study in Lines." The photos include a pen sitting horizontally on a desk, a paper clip in the same position, a pencil laid on the floor with tile lines running perpendicular, ceiling lights reflected off floor tiles.

The collage impressed photography professor Mark Rupert, who teaches at the Oregon College of Art & Craft near Beaverton.

"Formally, compositionally, structurally, he has an advanced way of working in the frame," Rupert said. "This is very definitely not random."

Pointing out the use of light and space, Rupert said, "I would buy that."

On this day, Junior, who prefers the nickname to his given name of Juan, seems to be on a mission, but he can't tell anyone what he wants to photograph.

The first-grader is able to use some sign language, but he fills in the blanks with shouts and pointing. He has seizures and balance problems and walks on the balls of his feet to steady himself.

Junior has already done a photo study in shoes and a study in green. Lately, he's focused on portraits.

He slowly climbs the stairs to the second floor where his instructional aide points out bright orange-and-yellow student paintings on the wall. Obviously uninterested, Junior holds up the camera, not stopping to frame the photo or even look at the digital display on the back, and snaps a picture seemingly to appease her.

He looks grumpy, frowning as he looks around, but it could be he's just concentrating.

When he sees the shot he wants, his eyes light up, he pauses, frames the subject, and clicks the shutter. Today, he's focusing on portraits of adults, capturing a school volunteer in the teacher workroom, his aide peering around the corner at him and his English language teacher monitoring the girls restroom.

His fine motor skills are improving, Avery-Grubbs said, but Junior still needs a children's camera with handgrips on both sides. He is also making gains in using words and sign language. Junior created his own sign for camera in which he places his hand on his cheek as if he's posing.

"He surprises us every day," Avery-Grubbs said.

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