Dressed in his trademark Kris Kringle outfit, photographer Andrew Wyatt photographs rock concerts and teaches kids with special needs.
Andrew Wyatt wasn’t always a photographer, nor did he plan on becoming a special education assistant teacher.
He never really thought about putting on a sequined Santa Claus suit and taking photos at rock festivals, either, but that’s exactly what happened.
While Wyatt makes his daily bread from working with the challenging special education population at a local Boulder, Colorado high school, his passion is photography and making people happy.
Folks sat down with Wyatt, who also has cerebral palsy, to talk about his path in life, from being the son of a southern Baptist preacher to becoming a sparkly, rock ‘n’ roll Santa Claus.
Thanks for taking time to talk to me today.
I appreciate it. I got held over at work an hour later than I was expecting to, so I literally just walked in the door.
What is it that you do?
I’m an assistant special ed teacher at the local high school.
What do you do? What population do you work with?
It’s a high school population, and it’s a population of kids with varying degrees of physical and mental disabilities. We have some that are completely immobile and have no speech capacity. And then we have others that we actually will go to general education classes with the student and just assist as they take the regular classes.
I definitely want to hear all about your work with kids and what you’re doing now, but maybe give me a little background on where you came from.
It’s a little bit of an unusual story. I was the son of a Southern Baptist preacher. His name is Robert Paul Wyatt. I’m Robert Andrew Wyatt. I just go by my middle name.
I grew up in rural, southern Virginia. Initially, I became a preacher, myself.
I did that for a couple of years, and I was undecided as to whether I wanted to continue with preaching as a life-long career. In my indecision, a friend of mine asked if I would go with them to this festival in the desert called Burning Man, back in 2002. I went and my head was completely blown off. All the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t put Humpty Dumpty back together again. It was just so out of my realm of experience. I grew up in a very small town of 500 people with a very conservative upbringing and community.
I came out of that and two things happened. One, I immediately realized that preaching was not for me. That the universe was a much larger place for such a narrow idiom as the Southern Baptist practice and faith. What I did then, though, was to start working with adults with disabilities in group homes. I did that for a while.
What drew you to that?
I still wanted to serve. That was the thing that was really impressed upon me by my upbringing–the need to do what I could to help others. There was a group home that had an entry level position with no experience necessary. I was good at it, and I enjoyed the work. I just continued working with that population until I got a job at a school.
Then, two, I found a career in photography. I had never picked up a camera before Burning Man in 2002.
What’s a typical day look like for you with the kids?
I work in a pretty large classroom of kids. We’ll have 20 people in our classroom this upcoming year. There’s a number of assistant teachers that are in that group. What happens is that we all get assigned a schedule. For example this past year, during several different class periods, I’ll be sent with different kids to different classrooms. For example, I went to a World Literature class. I went to an Astronomy class with someone else. I went to a Biology class. I go and assist with note taking and am available for answering questions. Then there will be other times where the lead teachers of the classroom for special ed students will have a main class with a large number of them. For a couple of the periods during the day, I’ll be in that main room and be assisting with whatever curriculum they’re teaching during that class period as well.
It’s very rewarding. I had a really cool moment here in Boulder last week. I went to an outdoor free concert on the main street in Boulder. I ran into several of my kids and a couple of them ran up and gave me hugs. Then as soon as one of the students (who is immobile without speech) saw me. As I walked up, she broke into the widest grin and her home assistant called it the “Andrew Grin.” That’s how much she likes me. I get my own smile, basically.
That’s so great. You have your own condition. Are you able to bring that into your work with the kids?
Absolutely. The first year that I worked at Boulder High School, I was assigned one-on-one with a student who has a pretty severe form of cerebral palsy, but is 100% mentally capable. She is unable to take notes because she can’t move her arms. At first, she just didn’t trust me. She didn’t want me to help her. One of the ways I was able to bridge the gap and bridge the frustration that she was having was to open up about my own cerebral palsy and explain that I had a few road blocks of my own and it just created a little bit of empathy. Even when she was pushing the hardest against me, I just let it go and I’d wait it out. I was patient. I just said, “One of the reasons why I’m committed to helping you in whatever ways you want is because I have a little bit of understanding. Just a little bit. But even a little bit helps.” That kind of helps melt the ice as it were a little bit.
I bet any kid in that program is going to respond to that sort of disclosure.
Oh, yeah. I show the kids I can’t move my fingers in my right hand individually. I can make a fist, so I can move them all at the same time, but I can’t move them as if I were playing a piano, for example. I can’t lift my index finger up separately from all the others. Our kids are very fascinated by that. They’re like, “Whoa, that’s crazy!” I don’t hesitate because it does show a little bit of We’re all in this together kind of feeling.
Because we are.
Right. Because we are.
How do you go from working with kids with special needs to photographing the Flaming Lips? Those are two completely different vibes there.
One of the cool things that I get to show the kids is that when I take pictures with my camera, I can’t use my right hand to push the button, and the button’s on the right-hand side. So, what I do is I actually use my left hand and curl it around underneath the bottom of the camera and use my left index finger to push on the button.
That’s your adaptation.
Exactly, and I get to show them: Just because we have a difficulty using x, y, or z, we can work our way around them. Let’s see if we can sit down and work our way around this. That’s another bridge.
It’s a real concrete example.
As to the photography itself, I’m not even sure how it happened. When I went to Burning Man, it was just unbelievably beautiful: the landscape, the sunrises, the sunsets, the costumes, and the massive art structures. I just wanted to document it. I just started snapping pictures and friends of mine would tell me when I showed them, “These actually look pretty good.” You go to a festival, like Burning Man for example, and you can’t really take a bad picture. People were just telling me, “It seems like to us that you have an eye for this.” I just decided Well, let me just try it.
At the time, I was living in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, so I was thinking I’ll go on hikes in the Tetons. Or I would go to the county fair or the 4th of July parade just to see if I could take good composition photos. One day, somebody tapped me on the shoulder at the fair, I believe it was. This gentleman behind me said, “Hey, I see you around town with your camera a lot. We’re a new newspaper and we need a photographer. Would you like to submit some photos?” It was kind of crazy. I submitted a few and they liked my work, so they actually hired me on. When I was covering all the local events, concerts were a part of the scene there. That’s part of what they cover in their arts and entertainment section. I really liked doing it, so I decided that I was going to take five months off. During that five months, I just applied for music festival photo passes. I didn’t know if I was going to hear back from any of them, but it turns out I got approved by all of them.
Be careful what you wish for, right?
I know! It was crazy. I had to fudge one. I remember the first time I shot Bonnaroo, it’s such a huge festival that their requirement is that you have to be working for a publication of 50,000 or higher. Obviously, there may be 50,000 people living in the entire state of Wyoming, but that’s a stretch. I fudged the numbers, and I was like, well, if they check on it and they bust me, I just won’t go. But they didn’t. From then on, I was good. I got in my car, loaded everything up, and I just went from festival to festival. I started submitting to little online music magazines who also liked my work.
You’ve never had any formal photography training? It’s all self-taught?
Nope. Never did.
Tell me a little about the Santa suit. I bet it gets all the girls.
I’m married now, but at one time it was definitely a magnet for sure. Here’s how it happened: the first music festival I officially got a music pass to was in 2005. It was in Las Vegas. It was put on by the Bonnaroo people. This was the fall before I did my big five month road trip experience. I wanted to get one music festival photo pass, go to it, see if I did it right, and that was when I would make the leap. I needed a costume, though, because it was a Halloween music festival. It was a big event. Everybody was going to be in costumes, and I just looked online and found this Santa suit. I was only planning on wearing it for that festival, but everybody loved it. They wanted me to wear it the next day and wear it again the next year. So, I did. Then it just stuck. I just made sure that on at least one night during every festival I went to, I would wear the sequined Santa suit.
It’s your brand now, right?
It really is. That’s what’s so funny about it. Now people expect me to have it wherever I go. That’s the other thing people don’t realize either. I don’t really want to wear this thing every day. It’s funny on a day when I’m wearing something else, and they’re like How come you don’t have the Santa suit on?
You’ve got this amazing life. What’s the secret? What would you tell your students?
That’s a very good question. Wow. What do I tell the kids?
I guess I just try to enjoy life, really. Honestly, I work in a job where I can enjoy being with people and having fun with them. The photography is the same thing. Even the Santa suit–what I like to do is make people happy. That’s what my whole life, I feel like, is about. It’s making people happy. I really like that. The Santa suit makes so many people happy just to see. I’ve even worn it for my kids. During the Christmas season, I’ll come and wear it to school one day.
The secret to your success is to make people happy.
I would say so.
I think one of the other things in this regard is that if someone had told me, for example, that I could never pick up a camera because of my disability, I probably never would have. I just never let my life be determined by things that I couldn’t do without at least trying them first. I think even that year that I quit my job and decided to just start hitting the road photographing musical festivals, I wasn’t a music festival photographer. I didn’t know that I shouldn’t quit a job that was a steady income and fly by the seat of my pants. For me, taking risks is the reward for living. I would have been a whole lot less happy and would have been a whole lot less helpful to others if I weren’t willing to take chances. Sometimes I took chances without really realizing what the risks are, and it’s much easier under those circumstances, but even after having fallen on my face a few times, it still ends up being worth it.