What It's Like Being A Blind Photographer
23 April 2018
Being legally blind makes photography a challenge of course, but it also makes it very rewarding.
Shared bed, Rajatan, India.
Being a keen gardener I needed to find a way to read the small print on seed packets. Glasses were no longer cutting it. Thankfully my mum had a DSLR camera which I used to take photos of the text and then load it onto my computer. This allowed me to zoom on the text and slowly take in the information.
From there I started taking pictures of the garden itself as a way to check my veggies for pests, disease and ripeness.
A sunflower at night, using a camera makes beauty emerge out of the darkness.
Eventually I started taking photographs in an attempt to get good looking pictures; it was the best way I could visually appreciate my garden. Not only did it mean I could enlarge details on the computer screen but it was a static, stable image which was contained on a flat screen with the whole image at an equal focal length.
My numerous eye conditions mean I have trouble focusing with objects at different distances crashing into each other in a blurry, jumbled mess. Photographs on a screen mean that my eyes only have to try and focus on a single focal length.
Chinlone; a South East Asian spot. A player kicks the ball over a volleyball style net while doing a backflip. At first, I couldn't see any of the action but a long lens helped me get involved. I used the sound of the crowd and a lot of error to snap some pictures so that I could the action on my computer screen.
Unfortunately though after a while I stopped taking photographs of the garden. Partly because I wanted more interesting subjects to capture and they seemed largely out of reach but also because my eyesight was rapidly detonating further.
Many surgeries with many complications reduced my vision and for too long the main images I saw were my bedroom walls, the walls of hospitals and the too frequent bright lights of operating theatres as I waited for the anaesthetic to kick in and my eyes to be carved up even more. I couldn’t see much joy around me and for a while despised visual images.
Thankfully a couple of years ago my brother provided me with the opportunity to travel the world, something I had wanted to do for as long as I remember. I wanted to see everything I could so before I bought a backpack I bought myself a DSLR. I knew it would be the key to unlock the world.
Colour hats of Myanmar. During the Phaung Daw Oo festival of Inle Lake, Myanmar. I couldn't see much of the procession so I let my eye wander over the crowd, looking for colour and shape. Thankfully these beautiful hats were right in front of me.
I knew that it would be the best tool to not only try and see the things that would cross my blurry and deconstructed vision but that it would make me see. When visually impaired it can be all too easy to go to the back of the crowd, I mean if you can’t see anyway what’s the point of going to all the effort to try?
With a camera in hand the point becomes trying to capture an image, a moment, a story. Suddenly there was a point and a reason to make the effort. Whilst I still miss the majority of the action that is unfolding in front of me, wanting to take photographs makes me look around. It makes me search for that flash of colour that might be something special.
It makes me think about the best angle or perspective not only to take a picture but also to see. It makes me strain to see all I can and makes me appreciative of what I can still see. It makes me become involved in the action rather than quietly hiding at the back of the crowd in a state of frustration. It makes and allows me to see.
Train snacks, Yangon, Myanmar.
Photography, like most passions, has also become a great way to meet people. A guy with a white cane, struggling not to bump into things but also having a camera in hand is a conversation starter – especially with interesting people.
When I was in Bagan, Myanmar I couldn’t wait to take photographs of the area and so got up early and hit the streets by myself. Usually it is hard finding my way around familiar places let alone new ones but still I found myself darting and running around trying to capture the action around me. By the time I went back to the hotel for breakfast I was happy with the fact that I had ventured out by myself – it is sometimes the little things that mean a lot.
A rainbow of boats, Nyaung Shwe, Inle Lake, Myanmar.
The day continued to get better at breakfast. I couldn’t see if I needed to go to a counter to order, if there were waiters or if it was a buffet situation so when I heard someone in the room speaking English I went in that direction to ask for help. The guy was happy to help but only after I answered a question; “What the hell is a blind guy doing with a camera?” Long story short; the person I asked for help turned out to be the film director of the original Woodstock documentary. We sat, ate, drank coffee and talked Indigenous Australian rock ‘n’ roll. If I wasn’t a blind photographer that meeting wouldn’t have taken place. For once being blind had an advantage!
Having a camera hanging from my neck also turned out to be a great social tool during a recent trip to Pakistan. My brother and I did our best to blend in by wearing the “Pakistan uniform” also known as a shelwar kamez. Before we went I was unsure how Pakistanis would react to a Westerner with a camera on display. The media told me that the Muslim people of Pakistan disliked westerners and weren’t happy about their images being taken.
Some of the many friendly people of Pakistan that I may not have met without a camera.
How wrong both these things were! As we walked the streets people constantly asked me to take a photograph of them or their friends. Some even chased us down the street to make sure they could be photographed. A photo would then lead to a conversation, which would lead to an offer of tea and food, which would then lead to more conversation and friendship.
My photographs of Pakistan are by no means amazing from a technical standpoint but the experiences with the people who wanted their picture taken certainly was. The camera was the best tool I could have to not only see Pakistan but to hear the stories of the people and actually experience the country.
I prefer candid photos of people but I also want my pictures to be respectful; both the end product and the process. Sticking a camera in someone’s face isn’t the most respectable thing nor is taking sneaky shots. This is particularly problematic when being visually impaired as I cannot read people’s body or facial language.
High plains desert, Himalayas, Ladakh, Leh.
What I need to do is converse with people, listen to their stories so that I can try and capture and share their story. Take a posed photo if they are willing. and when I have gained trust with the subject let them go about their normal activities knowing I will be taking pictures. This isn’t always possible when travelling as often images occur and disappear in a flash and currently I travel for travel’s sake rather than for photography’s sake so there isn’t always time to make friends with those I wish to photograph. I hope this will become easier as I gain more experience and confidence in photography and meeting people.
Whilst people and their stories are what I want to capture most, photography also allows me to see landscapes and animals that I wouldn’t otherwise be able to appreciate.
Visiting Chitwan National Park in Nepal could have been a frustrating experience as with my limited vision spotting the wildlife would normally be near impossible. With a camera however I was able to take part in the metaphorical hunt and experience and see things that otherwise would have passed me by.
Kalash children and balloon, Bumbaret, Pakistan.
Having low vision means that detail often escapes me but colours are what attract me. I would like my photographs to be as colourful as possible as that is usually what attracts my eye in the first place. I also want to further explore black and white or minimal colour photos as sometimes the simplicity makes it easier to actually see what is going on.
Music, dance and colour in Rajastan. Blurry but still beautiful to me.
I also often give the colour a boost. I boost colour as it can be hard for me to get the right exposure. I try not to boost the colour into an unrepresentative state but to try and get the picture closer to my mind’s eye when I click the shutter. Admittedly I probably over do this at times; I need to get more advice and constructive criticism in this regard as it can be hard to tell where the right balance is as my colour spectrum differs from those with ‘normal’ sight.
I rationalise my tendency to boost the colours for another reason. My ever changing visual landscape has meant that I have seen colours in many different ways. At times everything has been shaded green due to retina problems, not unlike some of Van Gogh’s paintings where everything is tinged yellow. Some surgeries have also altered my colour perceptions, washing out purples, blues and reds. Colours aren’t always what you think they are, they can be abstract and consumed differently by all of us.
A rhino at Chitwan, Nepal.
Finding the action
Being legally blind obviously creates many challenges when photographing. I have mentioned some of these above but the biggest challenge is of course seeing what is going on in the first place.
Often I use sound to find a picture. The ringing of bells on a convoy of mules, a gasp or a cheer from a crowd during a sporting event or a friendly voice. These are often my signals that something is happening, it is then that I try to see and capture those somethings.
A mule train in the Himalayas.
Having limited vision also makes it hard to get out and about independently, particularly in places like India where the constant flow of traffic and people stops for no-man and where routes are crowded with holes, poles, uneven and ever changing surfaces and innumerable other obstacles.
This means it is difficult to get to where the action is and also means I can’t necessarily be in places during those magic hours of light around sunrise and sunset. This lack of independence is one of the most frustrating things about being legally blind but still I am extremely fortunate to be able to travel to some amazing places with my brother.
I need to better learn my craft so that I can capture the best images in whatever light is available. It can also be good to not only take photographs during these magic hours though as life happens at all times of the day and night, not just when the light is right.
Inle Lake, Shan State, Myanmar.
What about using the camera?
Using the camera itself can be a challenge. It is hard to see the dials and displays on my DSLR which means I need to spend more time getting familiar with my camera’s functions so I know which button to press and which dial to turn without thinking about it. This will only come with trial and error.
Seeing through the view finder is also a challenge. Not only do I only see out of one eye which has very limited vision but I can only see out of certain parts of that eye meaning I can only see a fraction of the frame. I rely on the camera’s autofocus as I cannot adequately focus it manually however it is often difficult to see the symbol in the viewfinder which signifies where the focal point is.
Thankfully digital cameras allow me to take numerous photographs to find that one picture. Digital cameras combined with computers means I can crop images in post editing if there is something in the frame which I don’t want. This isn’t a perfect scenario but it is at least a scenario I can work with.
I don’t like to alter the image into unreality. By that I mean I don’t like to add different skies or backgrounds digitally – I want to capture what is actually in front of me. Currently I use a basic computer programme to do a few basic things. I like to boost the clarity to get images as sharp as possible – I see enough blurryness as it is.
I do however want to improve my photography skills so that I can eventually do as little editing as possible while still having images with boldness and richness.
These challenges can be frustrating at times but it is challenges that make life interesting and ensure we continue to learn. I know that as long as I continue to take photographs I will continue to learn and refine my skills. This means that photography will always be exciting and there will always be more photographs to take.
Rather than being solely a negative I believe being legally blind can have some positive influences on my photography. Lines, patterns and form along with colour, are what I take in to decipher the world around me. This can be problematic in real life; beans for example can have the same basic form as chilllis! Hopefully I can infuse the shapes and lines into my photography to help capture and creating visually stimulating images.
Most importantly being legally blind creates empathy with others. I have learnt the hard way that life doesn’t always go as planned; in fact it rarely does. I have learnt that things can change, sometimes negatively and sometimes positively, in a blink of the eye.
I have learnt that good people can find themselves in terrible situations that they cannot control but that it is possible to swim rather than sink. I have learnt that at our core, we as humans and more generally we as animals, are basically the same; we are all skin and bones, hearts and neurons, minds and emotions.
Golden Rock, Myanmar.
Ultimately there is one more reason why I enjoy taking photographs and viewing the photographs other people take; you would be hard pressed to find someone who appreciates a strong image more than someone whose visual world is blurry, disjointed and disappearing. Strong images are like oxygen, it is what we crave.
Due to having a number of degenerative eye conditions the day will most likely come when I cannot see at all. Until then and maybe still after then, I will continue to point my lens wherever a flash of colour, a sound or a story directs it and hopefully the images that catch my eye might just catch yours as well so that we can share a story.
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