Profile: Craig Madsen
Speak to any parent with a child with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), and they’ll probably tell you they have tried nearly every strategy under the sun to try and manage it.
Thought to affect as many as 11 per cent of 4-17 year olds in Australia, a child with ADHD has three main symptoms – inattention, impulsivity and overactivity. Children suffering from ADHD can struggle in traditional education and typically find everyday activities most kids take for granted a real challenge.
Yet many children with ADHD are hugely creative and do have a good attention span for tasks they find interesting—something New Zealand based photographer Craig Madsen has been exploring with his youngest son, ten year old Cooper, on their lifestyle block in rural NZ.
From little things
“I’ve been behind the camera since I was about 14,” explains Madsen, speaking over Skype with his son Cooper at his side. “As a young guy I started working at Camera House, later doing weddings and portraits, and I also worked on a cruise ship as a photographer.” He eventually discovered cycling photography, working for road and mountain biking magazines in New Zealand in a career that lasted more than eight years. However a serious injury in 2015 would change all that.
“I fractured my tailbone and as being able to ride to locations was key with cycling photography, the moment I couldn’t ride, was the moment my career was pretty much over,” he reflects. The following year was spent in recovery, slowly but surely building strength in his back. It was a tough time, but it did allow for a lot of thinking. “Spending three months in bed gave me plenty of time to think,” he laughs. “I had always enjoyed documentary photography, and decided to learn more about it.” Madsen devoured books and resources from bed, studying the greats and the art of long form documentary photography. A seed had been sown.
His back healing, Madsen and his wife used the setback as an opportunity for a restart, moving the family from the outskirts of Wellington to rural Ohakune, and quickly established himself within the community, offering his skills teaching a photography course at the local community learning centre. Now hungry to start a documentary project, and having made the decision to home school the kids, it was clear that the first project would begin at home.
Close to home
“First and foremost, they say you should photograph what you love – so it was an obvious topic to start photographing my kids,” explains Madsen. “But I’d also read heaps about why photographers had chosen particular subjects, and it really stood out to me how much stronger images were when the photographer had a personal connection with their subject. I knew exploring Cooper’s ADHD would make a great subject.”
Diagnosed with ADHD at age eight, Cooper describes living with the condition as a daily struggle. “I still haven’t got a clear idea of what it is,” he explains. “But it can be annoying and stressful, as I can’t get in the right space to do school work. It can be hard to sleep at bedtime as my brain is just going round in circles.”
“I saw the frustration and pain he would go through trying to get his brain to focus,” adds his father. “At times, it’s terrible. Let’s say your sitting down trying to do your homework – your brain is already way ahead—thinking about what your going to have for dinner, or what’s happening next week, or looking at that bird up in the sky—it’s constantly on the go, it never slows down.”
So more than a year ago, Madsen started shooting, documenting his son in moments of quiet, and moments of distraction, the good and bad, the light and the shade. He chose to shoot in black and white, emphasising the on/off nature of the condition. “I’ve always loved black and white. There’s more emotion when your brain isn’t distracted by colour,” he explains. Recently he’s started using a FujiFilm X-Pro2 with an X-T2 as a backup, with a 23mm f/2 his lens of choice, and NIK collection for editing.
The ADHD project, as Madsen calls it, has been a revelation. “There’s been opportunities where he’s been say, really upset, or having a bad moment, and I’ll bring the camera out and capture him.” There’s emotion, but also release at play. “I’ve captured the excitement of his going out and jumping on the trampoline, which he uses as a way to release energy. That and his scooter have become a real sanctuary.” The resulting images are raw and emotive, something that can only come from the closest of bonds between a photographer and their subject.
There’s no setups, and everything is captured candidly. “Knowing Dad is out there taking photos of me doesn’t really change what I do, or how I feel,” says Cooper. This comfort is helped when your dad has always had a camera out, ready to capture a moment at any time.
“Photography is part of the family,” adds Madsen. “My wife and I take photos and the boys are really used to cameras being around. What this means is there’s nobody putting on a face, nobody acting up for the camera. There’s a real honesty that comes with that.”
The images shot for the series so far can be challenging, but as Madsen is quick to point out, they aren’t all doom and gloom. “The series travels from dark to light, which was a deliberate choice,” he explains. “I want people to see that its not all bad for people suffering from ADHD. It goes from good to bad and there’s always light at the end of the tunnel.”
“This condition can be really terrible, and also really good at the same time,” he continues. “People with ADHD have ten times more energy than we do, they are often really creative.” This creativity was already there for Cooper, who has a particular talent for drawing, and so exploring photography for himself was a natural progression that had begun to emerge long before his father’s project took flight.
Like father, like son
With most activities, Madsen is the first to admit his son’s attention has a habit of wandering. “With skateboarding, homework or sports, say, he’d pick them up, then get bored just a few minutes later. But photography is different – I realised early on it gave him something he could actually focus on and keep his brain occupied with. It’s been a number of years now and it’s always something he goes back to, and continues to enjoy.”
“I really like the creative side of it,” Cooper adds. “Getting different angles, and trying to figure out how to capture what I want to photograph is fun.”
And just like his father, Cooper recently began his own long term photography project, buggered. “We were talking about doing something a bit more in depth and a bit more serious rather than just going out and taking single photos,” explains Madsen. “Cooper said he really enjoyed doing macro and close up photography, taking photos of bugs, and especially dead bugs, and it just grew from there.” Cooper’s project has a defined endpoint – at least 100 images, and he has 40-50 already in the can.
“Once this is finished we’ll look to putting a book together of his work,” says Madsen. “The students at my photography course have seen a lot of his work, and I’m pretty chuffed they can see for themselves what a ten year old can do with a DSLR!” he laughs.
Both Cooper and his brother Mac, who also shoots, have been taught the old fashioned way both starting with fully manual film cameras. They both learned the exposure triangle of aperture, shutter speed and ISO, and they shoot in manual. Better still, they each have their own camera gear they paid for themselves. “Cooper brought his gear by selling his Lego,” explains Madsen. For his buggered series he uses a 40mm macro lens and ring flash.
For Cooper, the challenges of living with ADHD are helped by having certain things to focus on. “Sport helps, but photography does help me with my concentration – my project at the moment gives me one clear thing to focus on, and so far, I haven’t gone off it, like I do with schoolwork,” he says.
As a parent, the project has had benefits not only for Madsen’s relationship with his son, but also his understanding of his condition. “I’ve learned to appreciate the challenges he faces better, and as a parent, this has been really important. It’s also taught me a lot of patience, something so important for both documentary photography and parenting.
You learn when you become a parent not to sweat the small stuff, and this is especially important if you have a child with ADHD as it can just lead to frustration. For me, having a deeper understanding of what Cooper is going through doesn’t necessarily make me more tolerant, but it does help me find better ways of managing it.”
In regards to his development as a photographer, it’s been revolutionary. “Now I look at the things like weddings and cycling photography as the stuff at the beginning of my journey,” he says. “This work is where I feel I can produce something really important.”
For now, the project continues, with Madsen hopeful to exhibit the images shot so far. But until then, there’s plenty to shoot. “I don’t see a defined finishing point – he could be 20 or 21 and I can see myself still seeing opportunities to document as he manages the condition,” he says. “You never stop learning, and you never stop growing.”
You can see the full ADHD essay and more of Craig Madsen’s work at craigandrewmadsen.co.nz.