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A Different Beauty

Anoushka Mathews (anoushka.mathews@gmail.com) is a video producer in New Delhi with NewsClick.in, a news site. She used to be with the Score Foundation, a non-profit group that works for the visually impaired.

Why and how blind photographers take pictures, and what they tell us about the world.


Image Credit: Evgen Bavcar

 

Evgen Bavcar, who was born in 1946 in Slovenia, was drawn to the camera at the age of 16, four years after he went blind in both eyes. He wanted to photograph the girl that he was in love with at the time. It was his first step towards a lifelong engagement with images.

Like Bavcar, many others across the world have not let their deteriorating eyesight prevent them from pursuing their passion for photography. Like most photographers, blind people, too, have been drawn to photography out of a curiosity to explore the world through images. Today, blind photographers are primarily those who have lost their sight to differing degrees, not those who were born blind at birth. They often encounter a recurring question: as blind people, why do you want to engage in a visual art form and how do you do it?


Image Credit: Evgen Bavcar

 

“I photograph what I imagine,” Bavcar was quoted as saying in an essay by Douglas McCulloch, “Shot in the Dark: Blindness and the Zero Point of Photo­graphy,” which appeared in the journal Afterimage in its May–June 2012 issue. “The originals are inside my head. It is a matter of creating a mental image, the physical record which best represents the work of what is imagined.”

Bavcar’s work appears in the book, The Blind Photographer, published in September 2016, a collection of about 150 photographs, mainly taken by people with reduced vision, in the big cities of the developing world. These photographs enrich our understanding of the many ways in which people can experience the world around them. In the previous year, the book See As No Other, was published. It is a collection of photographs that resulted from a project called “Blind with Camera,” started by Partho Bhowmick in Mumbai in 2006 to encourage the visually impaired to explore the world through photography.

 


Image Credit: Evgen Bavcar

 

Human society, however, tends to privilege sight as the most powerful and noblest of all senses. This attitude can be traced back to the time of Plato, who talked of “beholding beauty with the eye of the mind,” but it can be seen throughout history. Some people argue that colonial agendas and patriarchal assertions also contributed to the slow and gradual process by which the senses began to be ranked, with sight becoming, to use a sight-based metaphor, in the eyes of many, greater and more valuable than all other senses.

But education and evolving technologies have lent many blind people the confidence to stake a claim to the seen world, which for so long they believed belonged solely to those who could see. Perhaps, we need to challenge the idea that visual art can only be created by those who have sight.

“The best thing to do with stereotypes and pre-conceptions is to challenge them. ” the blind musician Stevie Wonder said in the introduction to The Blind Photographer. “Visions are not seen purely by the eyes but through the spirit.”

Photography by the blind extends the idea of seeing, by reinventing newer ways of arriving at images. While the photographs produced are inaccessible to their creators, they are accessible to those with sight. Thus a dialogue ensues between the sighted and the blind about the photograph as well as the process of making it. The camera acts as bridge between the two worlds.

“My task is the reunion of the visible and the invisible worlds,” Bavcar told the Wired magazine in 2006. “Photography allows me to pervert the established method of perception amongst those who see and those who don’t.”

Some photographers like to explore the outdoors, be it streets alive with layered soundscapes, or natural landscapes with intricate ambient sounds, while others tend towards more controlled studio set-ups.

Overall, though, photographs by the blind draw our attention and awareness to minuscule realities that surround us, that manifest themselves not so much in the grandiosity of their visual presence but more in intricate details that can be grasped only intimately and in close proximity.

Blind photographers often produce images that might appear distorted in comparison with the images created by sighted people. For instance, Bavcar, Sonia Soberats and Pete Eckert produce portraits that are blurry. Bavcar’s photographs are often layered with several images, such as his images showing several hands playing the piano and another in which an abstract structure appears in an ordinary space.


.Image Credit: Sonia Soberats

Soberats and Eckert are American photo­graphers who took to photography after having lost their eyesight. They like to play with light in their photographs. They take photographs in a controlled studio set-up with a model, using a technique called light painting, which allows them to create images through movement and touch. Mexican photographer Gerardo Nigenda creates images that make it clear he was touching the object. In many images, you can see that he is touching the face of the person or object he has photographed. He also prints an additional layer of Braille on parts of the photograph, describing the images and what he was feeling at the time he took the photograph. Here, we see the process of photography reflected in the final image, bringing together process and form.

Sense and Sensibility

Sight, after all, is only one entry point into the world. Moreover, in some ways, blind photographers help us gain access to a lost world, one that the eye can no longer see from having seen too much. They bring to the world images that are constructed in the mind and realities that do not necessarily have to be seen to be felt or experienced.

The senses of touch, taste, smell and sound guide blind people who take photographs, while software and technology help convert visual information to audio outputs. Many blind photographers also take the help of others to get information about the surroundings, light conditions and composition.

“On a purely practical level, many blind photographers work with assistants to advise them on camera positions and composition, while others employ cutting-edge digital technology,” wrote Sean O’Hagan in the Observer, in a review of The Blind Photographer. “A recent smartphone camera app developed at the University of California, Santa Cruz, for instance, allows photographers with impaired vision to dispense with the shutter button, which many find difficult to locate, in favour of an upward swiping gesture. The app also uses facial recognition technology; through the phone’s inbuilt speaker it announces the number of faces in a frame and also helps the photographer using audio instructions.”

Operating at the heart of the medium, these artists occupy the pure, immaculate centre—image as idea, idea as image. They approach the world free of immersion in visual media.


Image Credit: Gerardo Nigenda

“I start out at the zero point of photography,” said Bavcar, in McCulloch’s essay in Afterimage. “I am not influenced by other photographers because I cannot see.”

These images are not restricted by the boundaries of composition and sharpness, but rather, inspired by meaning, context and subtext. Moreover, the emphasis is as much on the process as on the end-product. Blind photographers invoke their imagination while their “whole-body” seeing extends the senses into the world and draws meaning from it.

“Of course, a blind person pressing the camera shutter is also a political act,” writes Alice Wingwall in Sight Unseen, a catalogue of a travelling exhibition of photographs by blind photographers, “Doing so he/she lays claim to the visual world and forces a re-evaluation of ideas about blindness.”

“For a blind person, making a photograph is a choice, a radical choice, a political move,” she further writes. “I was tired of people saying to me, how can you take a photograph when you can’t see anything? And I think they weren’t asking me, they were telling me, how can you do this? It’s unthinkable. Well, I can do it. What I say to them is that the image starts in the brain. These acts of creative image-making additionally render the blind more ‘visible’ to the sighted world, an important matter for such a small and marginalised minority.”


Image Credit: Sonia Soberats

 

“In the end, photography by the blind points us toward an equalising truth,” wrote Douglas McCulloh in “Blind Photographers: Vision, Accessibility and Empowerment in the Museum,” a paper published in the Disability Studies (quarterly in 2013, Volume 33, Number 3). “All of us, blind and sighted alike, occupy the same position: we live in interior worlds. We build inner realms from what we happen to hear, feel and see. Our selves are constructed from chance fragments and random inputs. It is these that find expression in the photographs that we make.”

The creation of images by blind people does many things. First, it renders them more visible. Second, because they themselves have gained knowledge about photographs, it allows them to gain some control over how they are depicted in them. Third, it allows them to share with the sighted what they see and perceive in the world they live in.

Sighted people might initially be surprised by the existence of blind photography. But ultimately, it would be rewarding if their surprise evolved into excitement at the prospect of being able to gain access to images that those without sight conjure up in their mind’s eye.


Image Credit: Pete Eckert 

 

Updated On : 12th Feb, 2018

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