Alfie Bowen only picked up a camera for the first time seven years ago, aged 16, as an escape from a decade of relentless bullying for having autistic spectrum disorder. Now 23, he has turned his lifelong affinity for the natural world into a burgeoning photographic career, with his work lauded by celebrities including Sir David Attenborough and his debut solo exhibition selling out in four hours. Recently signed by Castle Fine Art and with a book, Wild World: Nature Through An Autistic Eye, being published this autumn, he is undoubtedly a name to watch.
We spoke to him just after his appointment as a Nikon Z Creator and as a judge for the 14th annual Environmental Photographer of the Year awards. This year’s sponsors include Nikon and WaterBear – the first free streaming platform dedicated to creating a better life on the planet, and with whom Alfie has made an intensely moving film about his lifelong battle against prejudice and his mission to highlight the plight of endangered species and increase awareness and understanding of autism.
What’s in your kitbag?
- Z 7II
- NIKKOR Z 70-200mm f/2.8 VR S
- AF-S NIKKOR 200-500mm f/5.6E ED VR
- AF-S DX NIKKOR 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6G VR
How old were you when you realised you had autism?
I was only diagnosed in 2009, when I was 11, so I missed out on the early intervention that might have eased my suffering later on, yet the traits were visible from an early age. Autism is a wide-ranging disorder that affects everyone differently, but it often causes problems with social communication and sensory overload. With me, it meant I’d rarely be settled and demanded almost constant attention, and I had near-zero social skills. My mum, who was a nursery nurse teacher, suspected I might be autistic, but when I was small I was in my own little bubble, so I didn’t really know I was that different until I got to secondary school.
What fuelled your interest in nature?
I’ve always been obsessed with animals – I didn’t talk for quite a while, then one day when I was two, feeding the ducks with my mum, I came out with “mallard”. Even at a young age I felt trapped, claustrophobic and deeply unhappy indoors. It just didn’t feel right. I’d escape to the garden whenever I could, spending hours outside in all weathers exploring, playing in the mud and watching the creatures that called it home.
I also loved our annual family holiday to Weybourne Forest in Norfolk, staying in a log cabin deep in the trees. I loved staring through the window into the wilderness on the other side of the glass. For a child with autism, a forest is never just a forest – it’s a dazzling array of glistening greens, earthy browns and laser-like beams of light fighting their way through the canopy. To me it was Earth’s heaven, a wonderland where I could feel happy and allow myself to dream.
Did your love of photography grow from those early experiences?
It began in my teens as another way to satisfy my obsession with the natural world, but I quickly realised that when I was out in the field with a camera in my hand, I forgot about the stresses and sadness of life. Taking pictures of animals was the only time I felt truly relaxed and truly myself. Animals never laughed at me like people have done, so I’ve always connected with them and trusted them more than I do people.
I struggled with mainstream education, particularly at secondary school, which was hell. I was told I’d never pass an exam or amount to anything, and every day was a battle — the constant remarks, the stares and the utter inability of people to accept my differences made me feel like an alien, like everyone around me was speaking a foreign language. Most of the kids were discussing cars, motorbikes, celebrities and dating, and I was laughed at for only being interested in animals. Even though I tried to learn about the “normal” topics of teenage conversation so I could join in the chat, I was still shunned and bullied relentlessly.
All this led to severe mental health issues and multiple attempts to end my life – the first at just 15. I subsequently tried to take my life a further four times. I felt like I was being crushed and I had to escape. But when I went out with my camera, it was like a switch being flicked – I’d lose all my anxiety and feelings of not belonging. Photography became my escape, my language. I’m in no doubt it saved my life.
When did things start to change?
After many legal battles, in 2014 when I was 16 my mum got me into a private, special educational needs school not too far from home in Suffolk – Centre Academy East Anglia. I went from an environment of over 1000 pupils, where no one bothered to even say hello, to one of no more than 50 students, where every single person seemed to care. That was actually quite overwhelming to begin with, and I spent my first year just learning to trust people again. I’d kept my photography secret at my previous school, but eventually I told the Academy principal, and before I knew it the entire community was behind me. I went from being treated as a number to being treated as an individual, and that really boosted my confidence – I felt alive again. I became the first head student in the school’s history, got six GCSEs and seven coursework-based A-level qualifications at grades A* to B, and gained five unconditional university offers.
Why did you decide to concentrate on photography as your career – and did you ever imagine you’d be so successful?
I’m not sure I ever really made the decision. It just happened. Photography had become my therapy, so it would have left a great void if I hadn’t pursued it further. When I left the Academy in 2018, aged 20, I went to university but sadly suffered more bullying and left after three weeks. I took a month out to recover, and during that time I decided this experience wasn’t going to stop me – I was going to follow my dreams, and however tough it got, I wouldn’t give up on it.
I started my business later that year. I’d met Da Vinci Fine Art in the short time I was at university, and they helped me launch my career. I then became aware of Castle Fine Art, the UK’s leading art gallery network, but I knew my work was far below the level of their other artists, so I spent two years on my portfolio before I finally applied to join them last August. I never in my wildest dreams imagined I’d even receive a response, let alone be signed up – it was a very special moment, and I still have to pinch myself. I’ve just launched my first collection with them, Call Of The Wild, and the second will be out in the autumn. My fans now include Chris Packham and Sir David Attenborough. I never thought I’d be achieving what I am today. It doesn’t really feel real. None of it does.
How does having autism spectrum disorder (ASD) impact your photography?
I’ve never been a photographer without ASD, but people tell me that I notice things others simply wouldn’t, which makes sense as people on the spectrum are known to have increased sensory awareness. Noticing everything can also be extremely exhausting and overwhelming when I’m out in public, but I couldn’t do what I do without that attention to detail, so in that regard I’m thankful for it. The autistic brain is complex – it never stops for a rest and always demands new, useful information, which is really important for animal photography. I’ll spend ages learning all about the animals I’m going to photograph before I start, so I can predict their behaviours – that makes it much easier to get the images I’m after.
ASD also helps me mentally visualise what I want to capture and gives me the determination and obsession to create it perfectly. Obsession is a big trait with autism. At one point I was fixated on flamingos and spent a whole year photographing them. I spend a lot of time thinking about my images before I go out to get them. Sometimes I have a restless night and come up with ideas at two in the morning. It can take me months, even years, to get the final image – the baby giraffe looking into the camera, with its mother’s body behind it, is a case in point. It took six attempts to get what I wanted, and when I finally did I was so excited that I wanted to jump up and down!
Much of your work is in black and white – do you intend to concentrate on this as your style?
I shoot in colour, but I mentally envisage and then sketch out my photographs before even entering the field, and most are planned to end up as black and white – it allows for the creation of photographs that are much more emotionally powerful. That’s really important for me, trying to get people to connect emotionally and look deeper at animals rather than just focusing on their appearance. It also enables me to express my own emotions. Although I’m an emotional person, I sometimes find it difficult to show how I feel. Photography is my language, so it provides me with an outlet for that energy. I find black and white much easier to look at, too – it’s a nice break from a world full of colour, which can be overwhelming when you’re autistic.
What are your biggest photographic challenges?
I’m very tough on myself – only 150 of my 42,000 image files have ever been released. I know what I want and if I don’t get it exactly right, then it may as well go in the bin. That toughness can be annoying, but I know that without it I wouldn’t be where I am today. Another challenge is the animals I work with; they do what they want, when they want, and that means I often have to stay in one place for several hours to get the image. My record is six hours, waiting for a shot of a rhino on a hill. I’ve been after it for two years, and actually I finally got it yesterday – it was a special moment, a reminder to never give up.
How did your book deal come about?
I’ve wanted to publish a book of my photographs for over four years, but I’d been turned down by seven publishers. So I worked on building up a strong collection of 200 images, and in early 2020 I approached ACC Art Books, who loved the idea. I guess it’s another lesson in never giving up. ACC were keen on the focus both on the wildlife and my journey with autism, and having a publisher that actually cares about the wider message behind it was really important for me.
The book is called Wild World: Nature Through An Autistic Eye and I got the final draft last week; I can’t wait to hold the finished product in September – it will be a very special moment. For each book sold we’re donating 50p to WWF, who I work closely with – it’s good to able to give something back to the animal kingdom after everything I’ve had from it.
What’s the story behind the film you’ve made with WaterBear, An Eye For Detail?
I reached out to WaterBear last year just after they’d launched, and hit it off immediately with their CEO Ellen and the wider team. They’re an incredible bunch of people. At that point I didn’t really have a plan beyond wanting to somehow raise awareness of autism. The idea for the film came naturally out of our conversations.
Making it was unlike anything I’d ever done before, and quite a big leap for someone with the social difficulties I’ve had. We wanted to communicate my love for the natural world and my journey with autism, and as we only had a short amount of time to do it in, we decided to tell the story using three locations that have played an important role in my life – my home, Castle Fine Art, and Africa Alive, which is a Suffolk zoo I’ve had a season ticket for since I was two.
It’s hard to put into words what it was like seeing the finished film for the first time. I think we’ve created something really powerful and we’ve had incredible feedback. I guess the most special thing for me has been the number of autistic children and their parents who’ve got in touch to say how much hope I’ve given them and how much watching it has helped them. I’m now mentoring a few autistic children, and one has just won several awards for her bird photography, so that’s really nice. I hope the film continues to inspire people with autism to keep fighting, because the sun really does shine again.
Were you surprised about your invitation to become a Nikon Z creator?
Surprised and honoured! It all happened through WaterBear – they asked me in March if I’d come on board as a judge for the Environmental Photographer of the Year competition, which they were sponsoring along with CIWEM and Nikon. Obviously I was delighted to be asked and I’m really looking forward to seeing all the entries from around the world and taking inspiration from them.
Then in April WaterBear hosted an Instagram Live for World Autism Day, with me and Nikon Northern Europe’s Head of Marketing, Julian Harvie, as guest speakers. Julian had already seen my film and was really interested in my story, and that led to Nikon asking me to join their Z Creators. I’ve been a Nikon photographer since 2015, so it’s a real privilege to be a part of the Nikon family, and to be an advocate for their incredible kit, and for the amazing services they provide.
Why did you start using Nikon cameras?
When I began taking pictures in 2014 I was using my mum’s little compact, which was no bigger than my hand, and I quickly got frustrated by its limited capabilities. It didn’t allow me to select the aperture, ISO or to focus manually, and that was restricting my creativity. I’d read that Nikon were the best in the game, so I started my Christmas list in October that year, and it worked! I got my first Nikon DSLR – the D3200, which I’ve still got in my cupboard – and I haven’t looked back. I progressed to the Nikon D7200 and the AF-S NIKKOR 200-500mm f/5.6E ED VR, and as part of my sponsorship as a Z Creator I’ve just got the Z 7II and 70-200mm f/2.8 S-series zoom with the 2x teleconverter.
How do you see the Z series helping you with your photography?
The Z 7II is the first full-frame camera I’ve owned, and the first mirrorless one, so I’m looking forward to getting out in the field and exploring all the advantages that provides. I concentrate on detail and texture, and obviously the increased sensor size picks up so much more detail, which I love – and it also means I can crop into a captured image and not lose any detail. It’s a lot lighter than my DSLR, but I guess the biggest change so far has been using the electronic viewfinder – it’s like looking at a little TV screen. So I’m really enjoying it. I’d love to try my 500mm with the FTZ adapter, too.
What’s your next goal?
My focus is very much on the autumn, with the book launch and a planned tour of UK schools to raise awareness of autism and increase acceptance of people’s differences. I’ll be shooting my 2022 collection for Castle and I also really want to get a portrait of a cheetah – I love their facial markings, but I’ve not yet managed to capture them. My ultimate dream is to sell enough prints and books to be able to go out to Africa and photograph these animals in their natural habitat.
How do you combine your two missions – raising awareness about conservation and autism?
I’m a firm believer that change only comes around when we stand up and fight for it. Art has given me a voice when I didn’t have one before, when I couldn’t get my words out because I didn’t have the confidence to speak to people. Photography also gave me a reason to carry on in the darker days and now it’s a tool I use to inspire others.
If you’ve been afforded a voice, however small, then you should use it to instigate positive change. It’s not an option – it’s a duty, and to forfeit that duty, to keep life easy and not rock the boat, is simply unforgivable. So I feel a huge responsibility to use the platform I’ve built through my art to raise awareness, both for the plight facing the animals that are the stars of my photographs, and for young people with autism and mental health issues, so none of them has to feel as lonely as I did.
I guess I’m slightly bonkers, but my aim is to change the world for autistic people, so they’re accepted for who they are, and I won’t stop until I’ve done that. Changing one person’s life isn’t enough. I’ve battled all my life to get to where I am today, and now I’m here I plan to use the rest of my years to break down the stigma around autism, so other autistic people can be themselves without fear. That’s all anyone wants, isn’t it? To be themselves.
Entries are now open for the Environmental Photographer of the Year – for details, click here.