Photographer With Autism Captures Town's Heart

The following article first appeared in The Pilot on Dec. 5, 2019. 


Joseph Hill, the perpetually upbeat, roving photographer for the Southern Pines Welcome Center, sees life from a different angle.

He has autism, which may explain some of the recurring themes in his work. Many of Hill’s photographs emphasize the subtle patterns and geometric forms he finds in mundane objects.

In 2015, Hill made a still-life photograph of a tabletop napkin dispenser at the Ice Cream Parlor on Northwest Broad Street. The picture’s composition struck a chord with Anthony Parks, the restaurant’s owner.

“Joseph takes interesting pictures of regular things, and I thought that particular visual said a lot about the life of a small-town diner,” Parks said. “The napkin dispenser is something that’s there every day, but people never consider the beauty and art of it.”

Napkin dispenser at The Ice Cream Parlor in downtown Southern Pines. (Photograph by Joseph Hill)

Hill, 25, keeps a copy of the picture in his portfolio, a three-ring binder bulging with hundreds of pages of photographs. During a recent interview at the welcome center, he carefully removed a 6×4 print from its translucent sleeve for inspection.

“This is the first photo I ever took,” he said of the image, which shows a freight train barreling along the railroad tracks near Crystal Lake in Vass.

He snapped the picture with his mother’s camera when he was 13 years old. Teresa Hill was taking an online photojournalism course at the time, and her train-obsessed son had tagged along for a class assignment.

“I wasn’t really into photography, but I loved trains. Then we saw the train coming, and taking a picture of it felt cool,” Joseph Hill said. “I kept saying, ‘did I get it, did I get it?’ That’s how it all started.”

Joseph Hill was diagnosed with autism at age 2. He was later diagnosed with Crohn’s, an inflammatory bowel disease that caused severe damage to his intestines, forcing doctors to remove his colon.

In 2013, a vocational rehabilitation counselor told Teresa Hill that her son, who had just graduated from high school, should find a job cleaning tables to supplement his disability benefits. She balked at the idea.

“Joseph’s mother was concerned that vocational rehab’s recommendations weren’t career opportunities,” said Suzanne Coleman, a family friend and director of the welcome center. “They were more hospitality-oriented, busboy-type jobs, and she wanted more for him. She knew he had a creative side.”

Shortly after her meeting with the counselor, Teresa Hill and her husband began brainstorming ways their son could turn his zeal for photography into a career.

“One night, me and my mom and my dad started having all these creative ideas about how my photos could become a photography business,” Joseph Hill said. “We had such an awesome night, taking notes and channeling ideas of how all my photos could be put to good use.”

Sunsets are among photographer Joseph Hill’s favorite subjects. (Photograph by Joseph Hill)

The family soon began selling postcards, T-shirts and other items emblazoned with his photographs at local festivals. After joining the welcome center’s board of directors in 2016, Coleman invited Joseph Hill to serve as the facility’s de facto photographer.

“What I love about Joseph’s photographs is that he sees things that other people don’t see,” Coleman said. “He shoots from the heart.”

The last couple years have been tough for Joseph Hill.

His mother died suddenly on Feb. 13, 2018. His father, Joseph Bullock Jr., was later diagnosed with kidney cancer (the affected kidney was removed in November).

The men live together in Vass on a limited income. They receive some support from nonprofits like The Arc of Moore County, which provides services to the families of residents with disabilities.

“Joseph has overcome a lot, but he’s always been the young man who looks at the glass as being half-full,” said Wendy Carter, executive director of The Arc. “He doesn’t dwell on the sadness.”

Carter said adults who have autism or autism spectrum disorders are too often shunned by people who wish to avoid uncomfortable interactions. The concern, she said, is generally unfounded.

“If they simply take the time to actually talk to a person with autism, they will probably come away from the conversation with a lifelong friend,” Carter said. “And that’s especially true of Joseph. He’s definitely one of my favorite people, and he’s a joy to be around.”

Individuals with autism, Hill said, “are seen in a different way because we do things differently than normal people.”

“For example, I often like to wave at people even though I don’t know them,” he said. “We have a lot of different characteristics, but it’s a fact that an autistic person can really bring a lot of positivity to the world.”

Nov. 2 was National Deviled Egg Day, and Hill marked the occasion by sharing a photograph of the hors d’oeuvres on Twitter.

He tweeted a snapshot of a Boston cream pie on Oct. 23, the day dedicated to the dessert. On Nov. 21, he photographed a carton of Stove Top mix in honor of National Stuffing Day.

For National Eat a Cranberry Day, which falls 48 hours after National Stuffing Day, Hill posted an image of Ocean Spray cranberry sauce. Two days later, the company tweeted a reply.

“What a saucy photo,” @OceanSprayInc wrote. “Thanks for choosing Ocean Spray!”

Hill was elated. In an emoji-laden response, he thanked the company (twice) for commenting on his picture.

“For me growing up, every Thanksgiving, me and my family always look forward to serving your delicious cranberry sauce with our Thanksgiving dinner,” he wrote.

The bubbly endorsement was quintessential Hill, according to Coleman.

“In the 11 years I have known him, I have never once heard him utter a single negative word,” she said. “He is the most positive, kind-hearted, caring person I have ever met.”

Joseph Hill stands in front of the Southern Pines Welcome Center on Dec. 2, 2019. (Photograph by Jaymie Baxley/The Pilot)

On weekends, Hill can be found roaming the sidewalks of Southern Pines in search of interesting things to photograph for the welcome center. Coleman said Hill will invariably visit every open business to chat with employees while making his rounds.

“Joseph’s photographs are very popular, but Joseph is just as popular as his photographs,” she said. “He’s like the unofficial mayor of downtown Southern Pines.”

Hill hopes to expand his photography business to other parts of Moore County in 2020. His goal, he said, is “to go as far as possible.”

“Maybe I can eventually go to another state or travel the U.S.A., or who knows, maybe I can travel to another country,” he said. “But the point is, photography-wise, I just want to be the best that I can be wherever I go.

“I don’t want to be better than anyone else. I just want to show that as a person with autism, I have what it takes.”