On the campus of North Carolina State University, Erin Johnston and Ke’Shaun Tillman formed an unlikely friendship. In 2019, Johnston was there taking photos for the high school softball team that was competing for a state championship. Tillman was there for the Special Olympics North Carolina Summer Games. “It was just the right timing, it made me feel amazing,” Tillman says about the start of his relationship with Johnston.
While on campus, Tillman started following the softball team around. Not covering the championships for anyone, but just as someone who loved to take photographs. Stemming from Tillman’s love for sports, Johnston had an idea.
After the team won the state championships, it was time for the celebration. That November, the team would get their rings and Tillman would be in attendance. “I invited his mom to bring him to the ring ceremony,” Johnston says. “I had an extra state championship shirt and he’s just so excited and he’s more excited than anybody in the stands and I said, ‘I just love this kid.’ You would have thought I’d given him a million dollars.’”
After time had passed, and they’d run into each other at different events, his mom asked if Johnston would be willing to mentor Tillman through the North Carolina Adult Rehabilitation Program.
The answer was an instant yes. “Absolutely, I will do this,” she says. Johnston has been shooting for years and has her own photography business, 531 Photography. She was even the person who took Tillman’s high school senior pictures. With her years of experience shooting at different levels, including professionally, she was the perfect person to mentor someone just starting out in photography.
“I get to know about some photography skills and much more including some lighting and some backdrops and even focal points,” Tillman says with much excitement and a smile on his face. “Erin is like family.”
Nowadays, Tillman focuses a lot on women’s sports because of the lack of coverage they get. Whether he’s shooting softball, basketball, or volleyball, he’s well-known throughout the community and beyond. While he needed help picking up assignments when he first started, now he’s so active he can market for himself. He’s been a stringer—a freelance photographer-- for two years at the Lenoir News-Topic, and he also gets hired by other various newspapers and schools. He posts his photos on his own SmugMug page.
“I will shoot several pictures from different angles and my favorite are the close-ups by the net for volleyball,” he says about shooting assignments. He enjoys capturing great sports moments and helping to preserve memories.
But, in 2022, it was time for Tillman to be in the spotlight. During the Zoom interview, he turned around in his chair and grabbed a medal to put around his neck, one he received earlier this year at the Special Olympics USA Games. Johnston was able to join him in Orlando as a photographer for Team North Carolina, getting to help once again tell Tillman’s story.
“Ke’Shaun loves sports and getting to see him be successful at something he loves is amazing. He captures that for so many people and to be the one who captures it for him, just makes everything worth it,” Johnston says with pride echoing in her voice.
But even during the biggest week of competition in his life, Tillman couldn’t put the camera down permanently. When Tillman wasn’t competing in athletics, he was also shooting photos of his teammates.
Tillman wrote an online blog about his trip to Orlando. In it was a picture of Johnston and his mom with the attached quote: “I hope my family is proud of me.” Tears flooded out of Johnston’s eyes when she saw it. She calls USA Games the greatest photography she’s ever done, and it was because of Tillman and the impact he’s made on her.
For Tillman, he loves photography because the pictures can tell a story so beautifully and he can share his passion without people judging him because of his disability. Viewers don’t see his autism when looking through his shot, all they see is his raw talent making time stand still through a lens and a frame.