Charlie CotugnoI’ve known Charlie for years and it occurred to me that he knows many of our stories but we don’t all know his. I caught up with him recently and turned the tables on him. Here’s what he had to say.

Lynn: When did you first realize that you were a photographer?

Charlie: It’s hard to say when I first realized I was a photographer. I’ve had a camera in my hand since I was about seven years old and things have just organically progressed to where they are now. During and after college, I would do headshots and band photos for actors and musicians for a few extra dollars but I didn’t consider photography as something I wanted as a career. It wasn’t until 1994 that I decided this was something I wanted to pursue and really began learning all the technical aspects of the art. In 1999 I opened my business and began my career transition.

Lynn: When did you buy your first camera?

Charlie: The first camera I bought for myself was a Pentax K1000. Until then I had been using the family’s Kodak Instamatic. The K1000 was a very basic, completely manual, and extremely dependable camera. I think it was $125 when I bought it in 1977 and it came with a standard 50 mm lens.

Lynn: What was your subject?

Charlie: I think my first photographs with that camera were beach scenes. Several of my friends had cameras as well so we all piled into a car and drove down to Cape Cod for the afternoon. (I grew up in the Boston area.) I believe I still have them tucked away somewhere.

Lynn: What’s your favorite subject?

Charlie: People. I know that’s a broad category but I love capturing unique personalities and their reactions to their surroundings or situations. My business is based on creating images of people and the most satisfying part of the whole portrait process is seeing their faces when they see portraits for the first time. I also love to photograph musicians whether they’re performing or sitting for a portrait. I made my living as a musician for a while and have always been attracted to the energy of creative people, especially during a performance. I photographed lots of bands in the late 70s and 80s such as Emerson, Lake, and Palmer, Queen, Crosby, Still and Nash, Muddy Waters, and many others. It’s been a long time since I’ve done concert photography and I’d really love to get back into it.

Lynn: What was your inspiration in starting Stories of Autism?

Charlie: In late 2001 my son was diagnosed on the autism spectrum. It wasn’t a surprise to us as he had been treated for many of its symptoms since he was about a year old. He was delayed in speech, wasn’t eating much due to sensory issues, not making eye contact, lining up toys, all the typical behaviors. A lot of people didn’t understand autism back then yet everyone “knew” what they could do to cure him. About a year or so later I came up with the idea of a project to raise awareness and educate people about the realities of autism. The idea sat in my head for a few years until 2005 when I decided that since I’d never have the time to do it, I might as well jump into the project and do the best I could. I created images of about ten kids and had their parent write a short narrative about life with autism and hung them in a local coffee shop. I thought that would be the end of it but I started receiving calls from parents who wanted to participate in the project, then autism service providers, then local media, and lots of photography industry publications and organizations who wanted to write about it. I ended up launching it as a non-profit organization in 2009 and now we have over 150 photographers around the country contributing to our online gallery through our annual portrait project.


Lynn: Are you looking for more kids to photograph for the SOA collection?

Charlie: Right now the priority is on adding diversity to Stories of Autism. The project needs much better representation in ethnicity, cultural backgrounds, etc. While we’re not turning anyone away, our efforts are focused on getting this issue corrected. Our diversity effort also includes age. We have very few adults in the project so that is also a priority at the moment.

Lynn: If you could photograph anyone in the world, who would it be?

Charlie: I think it would be David Bowie. He’s definitely one of the most enduring, versatile, and creative people ever in the music business. I’d love to take the time to plan and create a really interesting environment to create his portrait. I’ve also heard that he’s hysterically funny which would make the experience even more enjoyable. A close second would be Peter Gabriel who is also one of my musical idols.

Lynn: What has photographing kids with special needs taught you?

Charlie: I think what it’s taught me to do is acknowledge a person’s symptoms and immediately move past them. Instead of dealing with a child’s or adult’s disability, I’m now better able to work and communicate with them as a person, bypassing the external filter of their symptoms and focusing on the root of who they are. When you can connect with someone that way, even on a subconscious level, you’re going to earn their trust and be able to create a much deeper and more meaningful portrait.

Lynn: What tips do you have for parents in preparation for a photo session?

Charlie: Many parents of kids with special needs give up on the idea of portraits. Either they’ve had a negative experience with a past photographer who had no idea how to work with their child or because they feel the potential hassles just aren’t worth the effort. But there are some things you can do to prepare any child, especially one with special needs, that can reduce anxiety and help make things easier.

Preparation is everything.

Don’t just load your kids into the car without preparing them for what is about to happen. Visit the session location with your child and let them get familiar with it. See if you can find out what they like best about the location and if there are certain areas where they’d like to have some of the images created. While you’re there, use your phone to create some quick photos of them and let them look at images. This will help your children associate the place with an action.

And if it all possible, practice going to this location at the same time within the same daily routine you’ll be using on your session day. Identify any fears they may have and try to address them. With my clients I always make myself available for an introduction in the days before the session if they think it will help everything go more smoothly. I know it’s a lot of additional work but going through these steps will make it more likely you’ll be displaying beautiful family portraits in your home as well as sharing them with your family and friends!

We’d like to thank Charlie for sharing his story with us and for all he does to promote awareness, acceptance, and inclusion of those on the autism spectrum.

You can find Charlie at