Photographing Blind and Visually Impaired Individuals

How to Photograph Blind or Visually Impaired Individuals

For this blog post, I decided to revisit a subject I touched on quite a long time ago, in another, older, blog. So, here is the question:

How do we photograph people who are blind or visually impaired?

I ask, because when our subjects, models, have very limited (if at all) eye sight, they can’t really look where we tell them to look, without a bit of additional help. So, the question is, how do we, photographers, communicate with these subjects? How do we guide them in order to best express their personalities?

Let me start with a brief personal experience interacting with individuals who are visually impaired.

My first up close and personal encounter with a legally blind (almost completely blind) individual happened years ago, when I was teaching high school math. I had a student who had very little eye sight. He was a tall and skinny guy, kinda shy, but once you got to connect with him, he could really chat. And he knew his way through the entire school building. We were meeting for after-school studies, while I was trying to teach him geometry of all things math. Since his father was a culinary chef, I tried to use food analogies, for example, pizza, when explaining the concept of circle, angles and whatnot. Long story short, he became quite good at geometry, and, most importantly, started to like it, too.

Journeys Through Darkness: A Biography
Journeys Through Darkness: A Biography of AIDS. Photography by Kurt Weston.

Years later, I got to meet award-winning, legally blind photographer Kurt Weston. I wrote about his story in A&U Magazine, (a couple of times) and wrote a book about him and his work. We became friends and he became my first mentor, in photography.

Kurt Weston’s Blind Vision series of self-portraits capture the physical and emotional impact that visual loss can have on an individual.  He tells me, in an interview for “Warrior Within” article [A&U, November 2005]:

In order to represent his visual disturbance—which he described like “pieces of cotton stuck in my eye, floating every time I move my eye”—he sprayed a glass with foaming glass cleaner and took a self-portrait sitting behind it.  “You see my hand pushing away the foam, which is what I would love to do,” he explains, “I would like to be able to wipe away all that cotton that keeps floating in front of my eye and get a clear view of what I want to see out in the world.”          

Weston believes that black-and-white offers his art a concentration of expression.  And he likes that intensity, in particular in his portraits.  He uses regular film and prints his images on silver gelatin paper so that they can last forever.  He wants future generations to be able to look at this work and say, “This was happening at this time in history and this is the impact it left on people who’s lives it touched, this pandemic.”

To learn more about Kurt Weston and his story, feel free to visit him online and/or check out Journeys Through Darkness: A Biography .

While writing Journeys I’ve learned a lot about AIDS-related blindness, CMV and CMV retinitis, and about looking at the world through the eyes of a visually-impaired individual.

Sketch People - Stories Along the Way, by T.J. Banks. Cover by Alina Oswald.
Sketch People – Stories Along the Way, by T.J. Banks. Cover by Alina Oswald.

A few years ago, thanks to my friend, award-winning author T.J. Banks, I got to not only look at the world through the lens of visually-impaired individuals, but actually photograph some of these remarkable individuals, artists themselves, featured in T.J. Banks‘ book, Sketch People

So, back to my initial question: How would we photograph a blind or visually impaired person?

The challenge may start with the realization that, as photographers, we can’t really say: “look at me” or something of that sort, because the model, the subject, doesn’t really see us.

For this particular photo shoot, Tammy (T.J. Banks) drove me around her neighborhood and introduced me to my model, Mark. We didn’t have much time to photograph, since he was one of the several sketch people I was to photograph that day.

We met Mark and his wife in front of a jewelry store. While Tammy disappeared inside the store with Mark’s wife, I got to chat a little bit with him and went to work.

Mark was funny and could crack a joke. Not only he was–or at least appeared to be–very much at ease in front of my lens, but he was putting me at ease, too.
As a side note, quite recently, Perkins School for the Blind became interested in using Mark’s portrait for one of their articles.

In order to photograph Mark, I used the storefront as backdrop. Mark is a fantastic storyteller. And as he was sharing his artist story, his story started to appear on his face, captured in his facial expressions. So, I tried to capture those facial expressions through my lens, while listening to his fascinating story.

I decided I didn’t want his blindness to become the main character in the visual story I was trying to tell. After all, Mark, the artist, was the main character. So, I asked him to look up at the sky, with his eyes slightly open. He seemed to like that idea and added a smile. He appeared as if he was slightly squinting against the sun, deep in thoughts. I took the shot.

Also, I tried to achieve certain looks, by asking him  to turn left or right, look up or down or to turn his head towards my voice. [A side-note here: remember that as photographers we see the mirror image of our subjects. So, direct them the right way–our left is their right and the other way around. Try not to confuse them!]

The experience was an enlightening one for me. When Tammy and Mark’s wife finally emerged from the store, I took another picture of the couple, lovingly smiling at each other.

Visual artist Kelly B. Darr. Photo by Alina Oswald.
Visual artist Kelly B. Darr. Lensbaby Portrait by Alina Oswald.

While visiting an artist studio in NYC area, I ran into a visual artist who was presenting her beautiful art pieces while rollerskating with them around her studio space. Her name is Kelly B. Darr . I was hooked right away. I couldn’t take my eyes off the artwork or the beautiful, fairy-like artist. Nowadays, I own a few of her art pieces.

We became friends. Years ago, I also interviewed Kelly B. Darr and got to learn everything about colors and A Universe of Colors one (in particular Kelly B. Darr) can create.

 

Kelly is a phenomenal artist. Her story is an artist’s against-all-odds kind of story. Since childhood, she’s had eyesight only in one eye. Now, she finally has the opportunity to gain eyesight in the other eye. For that, Kelly has to go through several surgeries. To find out more about how one regains eyesight and the many surgeries and challenges they have to go through, from darkness to light, check out the link posted here.

Getting to work with visually impaired artists has really opened my eyes to an amazing image of the world painted in black and white, as well as color, by stories about strength, perseverance, and also hope.
Thank you and thanks for stopping by!
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