Blind with Camera: Photographs by Visually Impaired People
By Partho Bhowmick
When we think of sight, we think of light and when we think of a blind person, we think of darkness. Such partitioning is all too natural as the polarities between the sighted and the blind are deeply rooted in our historical, psychological, and sociological influences. Our cultural emphasis on eye-centeredness for the interpretation of knowledge, truth, and reality make it even more difficult for us to imagine living without sight. Consequently, most of us are unaware of the long history of art by the blind, and the blind as a subject of art. Several thinkers, including blind poets Homer (9th century BC), Surdas (1478-1581) and John Milton (1608-1674), have written profound meditations on art and blindness that suggest sight and blindness are complimentary and inextricable concepts.
Imagine a blind person examining a table. A few touches reveal the table is set for four, is rectangular in shape, with a top surface that is smooth and partly covered by a thin oval tablecloth. Further exploration by touch reveals the table is neatly arranged with knives and forks on either side of thick round platters; the knives are sharp and the forks have four prongs. Beside each knife is a wine glass-the glasses are filled almost to the brim and the surface of the fluid is fuzzy. There are rough rectangular mats with steaming hot serving dishes on them.
The table and the objects on it are “tactile” as much as “visual”. By touch and feel, a blind person can describe the shape of each object and its likely function, as a sighted person could, seeing each object. Both the sighted and the blind have the same knowledge and perception of objects on the table; only their use of the senses and the route they have followed to arrive at the same conclusion are different. Since infancy, a sighted person learns by “default” to see and interpret things while the blind person “adapts” to see through his mind’s eye, by touch, feel, audio clues, intuitive skills, and, if not born blind, his memory of sight. He carries an inventory of memories of the “senses” while an inventory of the memory of “seeing” develops in the sighted. Similar to touch and memory, what you see is what you hear: we usually swivel our heads on hearing a loud sound behind us. It is also well established, through scientific experiments, that the visual cortex, which processes visual inputs in a sighted person, is re-allocated in a blind person for the processing of touch and sound.
Backed by research and hands-on working with the blind, the Blind With Camera project takes a holistic approach and adapts training methodology to support blind people in “learning to see”, thereby enabling their systematic visual thinking, enhancing their imagery process, and teaching them how to communicate their mental images through photography.
The nebulous concept of photography by the blind gains clarity in answering the frequently asked question: Why would anyone who could not see wish to take photographs? The simple answer is the basic human need for images. Evgen Bavcar  says: “What I mean by the desire for images is that when we imagine things, we exist. I can’t belong to this world if I can’t imagine it in my own way. When a blind person says ‘I imagine’, it means he, too, has an inner representation of external realities.”
The power and potential of any creative undertaking is to engage oneself in a creative dialogue with an audience. Photography is not just the use of a camera, but a process that engages all the five, even six senses, in one’s effort to understand oneself, dialogue with others, and impact or alter perceptions. The photographic medium is used to communicate many emotions involved at the very moment the image is taken.
Photography remains one of the most prolific and popular mediums of modern times, and serves as a social platform. It is fun, accessible, helps one connect, is sociable, and satisfying. The sharing of photos through albums, e-mails, social networking sites, and mobile phones is something people take for granted now, though they would not describe themselves as “photographers.” But being denied access to such social media can be isolating. Many blind people are, therefore, excited to have the opportunity to take pictures and get involved in the visual world, a world they have been hitherto excluded from,to connect on a common social platform. It can be immensely rewarding for the blind photographer when someone describes what they see in his images to him, and thereby initiates a dialogue that enables him to share, in greater depth and detail, his perception of the world.
Photography by the blind is a social equaliser: it challenges perception and inspires social change. Many of the participants in the Blind with Camera project have expressed delight in the fact that they are doing something many people would not have thought possible. Blind with Camera is an ongoing project of creation, expression, and communication that helps address feelings of isolation and provides a means to engage with society and create a forum for dialogue between the seeing and non-seeing world. As blind photographer Pete Eckert  puts it: “I slip photos under the door from the world of the blind to be viewed in the light of the sighted.”
A window for looking inwards
The existence of a reciprocal gaze between sighted and blind photographers of varying ages and types of blindness is important as another sense “fills in” or compensates for sight lost to take pictures. Visually impaired people use the camera as extensions of themselves, to explore the visual world, and gain deeper insights, while recording their imagination and point-of-view. They use various tactile and audio clues, visual memories of sight, the warmth of light, and cognitive skills to create a “mental image” before they make a judgement to take a picture. They are the owners of their uninhibited process of creation.
The descriptions the photographers provide alongside their pictures reveal how they handle challenges during the act of creation. As with sighted photographers, photographs taken by one blind photographer differ from those taken by another, depending on their life experiences, the nature of their blindness, their ability to recall and the clarity of their visual memories, the attentiveness and sensitivity of their senses, cognitive abilities, and, most importantly, their involvement with the subject to be photographed. The dominance and mix of one or more of the senses are usually caught in the photograph, clearly revealing that even a finger has eyes, the ear has eyes, the memory has eyes, emotions have eyes, fading sight has new eyes, and the mind has eyes.
Fingers have Eyes
‘Memory of Touch’ (Figure 1) is a series of pictures by Bhavesh Patel (born blind), which were taken as he goes up the staircase of his college. He feels the space and uses his mental judgment to position himself before taking the pictures. The abstractness in these pictures is due to the unorthodox position of the camera during his physical movements and effective summation of layers of imagery formation based on memory of touch.
Rahul says “By touch, I am familiar with this space of my college. The challenge was to photograph it as I went up the staircase. This series of pictures looked unfamiliar to my sighted college friends, but, in my touch memory, it is just the same space.”
Figure 1. Memory of Touch by Bhavesh Patel (2009)
Mahesh Umrania’s ‘Close Door by Closed Eyes’ (Figure 2) is made by touch, expressing his agony of finding an object that bears resemblance to his sightless eyes. Both are closed.
Figure 2. Closed Door by Closed Eyes by Mahesh Umrania.(2006)
‘Chair and Door’ (Figure 3) by Rahul Shirshat (born blind) was taken during the opening days of the Blind With Camera workshop, when participants do exercises focused on space and memory. They measure the space by walking left to right and counting the steps they have taken, touching the objects they encounter on the way. They return later, counting steps and remembering objects. They position themselves with a camera, adjusting and repositioning from memory. Then, they take photographs. The process runs parallel to sighted photographers moving back and forth as they frame an image, but, for the blind, touch is local and the photographs are created in layers in their mind.” Rahul feels the space and objects within the space. He measures the space from the left bottom corner to the right bottom corner (say 10 steps) and positions himself at a distance of 4.5 steps from the right to take this picture. Rahul says “By touch, I know the door and chair. I can also feel the warmth of light. By measuring the space, I composed this picture. The contemporary design chair next to an old style wooden door interested me in conveying the co-existence of the old and new in our lives.”
Figure 3. Chair and Door by Rahul Shirshat. (2006)
Ears have Eyes
Sound clues can guide the visually impaired to look for the source of the sound and point the camera towards it or follow it. Pictures and statements of the visually impaired photographers give insight into how ears are substitute for the eyes. About the picture ‘Sound is my Eyes’ (Figure 4), Rahul says “I met my friends halfway up the staircase, and we chatted awhile. After they left, I could still hear them talking, and, eventually, there was silence. Ears are my eyes. I recognise my friends by their voices, and sound guides my photography.”
Figure 4. Sound Is My Eye by Rahul Shirshat (2006)
Figure 5. Cycling by the Sea by Ravi Thakur (2010)
‘Cycling by the Sea’ (Figure 5) by Ravi Thakur (born blind) is a picture that every sighted photographer would dream of taking. He says “I followed the sound of the moving bicycle, but it blended with the sound of the ocean, wind, and waves. I was daring enough to persist in sorting through the confusion and the clues, and feel lucky to have gotten this picture.”
Figure 6. Pigeon Series by Bhavesh Patel (2009)
Bhavesh Patel (born blind) makes the ‘Pigeon Series’ (Figure 6) by randomly pointing the camera in the direction of sound, resulting in a blurring effect and giving the feel of a painting. Bhavesh says “I followed the direction of sound as the pigeons flapped their wings and flew, and took these pictures based on the audio clue that more sound meant more pigeons are flying.”
Memory has Eyes
Late blind persons use non-visual information to create an abstract mental picture, and then scan through their ‘inventory’ of past memories to find one that reconciles the mental picture before taking a shot. The process of reconciliation between the mental image and the one locked in memory gives an edge to the picture; better the reconciliation, better would be the photographic disclosure and more effective the message.
‘Designer Shadow’ (Figure 7) by Mahesh Umrrania (late blind) illustrates that memory has eyes, and involves the process of reconciliation. Mahesh says, “I could manage to touch the lower branches of the tree and feel the warmth of the summer sun over my head. By imagining the ‘designer’ shadow on the footpath, I took this picture.”
Figure 7. Designer Shadow by Mahesh Umrrania (2006)
Dharmarajan (late blind) in the ‘Gateways of India’ (Figure 8) reflects on his memory of sight to give a fresh visual presentation to the most photographed iconic structure of Mumbai. He says “I could feel the warmth of the setting sun; my sighted friend described the effect of twilight on the Gateway of India to me. I took this picture by recalling my own memories and imagining it.”
Figure 8. Gateway of India by Dharmarajan Iyer (2007)
Fading Sight has Eyes
Photographers with different types of visual impairments, such as low vision, depth of field, blurring peripheral vision, outline vision, and light sensitive vision make advantageous use of their limitations for capturing different subjects and environments. For instance, Raju Singh has low vision with depth of field issues. By getting closer, Raju can clearly see Mahesh playing the sitar through the viewfinder. In ‘Getting Close’ (Figure 9), he takes advantage of the camera going out of focus to show us what he actually sees. Raju says “I get very close to objects to see them clearly. My photographs made with limited sight allow sighted people to experience the abstractness of my sight.”
Figure 9. Getting Close by Raju Singh (2006)
For the picture ‘Pillars’ (Figure 10) he says “Due to a depth-of-field issue, I could not see the far-off pillars. So, refreshing my sense of geometry, I took this photograph. Interestingly, in the print, all pillars are equidistant from my eyes, so I see all the pillars clearly. Photography helps me to see.”
Figure 10. Pillars by Raju Singh (2006)
Satvir Jogi’s ‘Tears’ (Figure 11) depicts his fog-like sight by saying “My sight is like your eyes with tears.”
Figure 11. Tears by Satvir Jogi (2010)
Connecting with “Self”
Photography by the blind triggers an insightful journey that connects with the “self” in many ways. When a blind person looks through the lens of a camera, a remarkable transformation takes place—he at once creates, explores, experiments, makes choices, develops ideas, and enjoys new experiences. With camera in hand, the blind wake up to shapes, forms, people, and activities as if the camera were a new pair of eyes. In the process, they learn that disability basically means doing things differently. It gives the blind participants a sense of realization—that they can do things they never thought they could. They surprise themselves, as well as their teachers, parents and friends.
Photography is about self awareness and learning. Blind people sharpen their personal observations, dreams, ideas, and emotions while enjoying the entire process of creative self expression. And in learning and mastering the techniques of photography, they gain sensory development, sharpen their judgement and intuition, enhance their self expression and improve their academic performance, their communication skills, including listening and speaking, spatial awareness, vocabulary and learning skills. Moreover, through the photographs they have taken, and which they can now enjoy and experience, they are able to express pride and delight in their accomplishments.
Reading the Pictures
Photography by visually impaired people opens the critical gap between what we ‘see’ in the photograph and what we are supposed to ‘read’ in them. It invites the viewer to visit the question — how do we read these photographs? Some would view the work of the visually impaired photographers in the context of their disability rather than in terms of the content of their work. Others might find the idea too paradoxical and reject it. Some purists might critically rate such photographs as mere snapshots. Viewers should ‘read’ these pictures by penetrating the surface images to explore the interplay of conscious and unconscious perceptions and experiences, present and past time, and certainty and uncertainty in the construction of reality. Imagining the ‘visual synergy’ between mental representation and the visual reality in front of the camera would enhance our understanding of the expressions and the feeling anchoring the photographic images.
The experience of sight is structurally counterintuitive; we end up seeing, not what is in the image, but what we are trained to see, what we want to see. This is the politics of seeing. Sight-centred interpretations of knowledge and truth fail to value other senses, resulting in narrowing our sensibility, flattening our experiences, eventually leading to perceptual poverty. Interestingly, sighted companions describing places and objects in great detail to visually impaired photographers may make the sighted persons see details they would not otherwise notice. This is an example of a reciprocal process that is mutually enriching.
The whole course of modern art for the last 100 years has been moving towards the concept of mental construction as Picasso put it: “Painting is a blind man’s profession. He paints not what he sees, but what he feels, what he tells himself about what he has seen.” Blind photography comes from that place. Seeing through the mind’s eye of visually impaired photographers is the purest way of looking at the visual realities around us, away from the influences of visual history and modern visual culture, away from the conscious struggle for control, away from formalistic rules of perfection, away from intellect of visual literacy, and, most importantly, initiate dialogues and inspire social change.
Able-bodied ideology presumes equation between reality, knowledge and the gaze; what you see is what is real. Photography by the blind challenges this ‘blind’ faith in the certitudes of visual perception. It illustrates a critique of the taken-for-granted binaries of presence, visibility, and identity as given. It contests sightedness as the sole and principal mode of access to the world. In Georgina Kleege’s  words (1999), photography by the blind is a kind of “practising blindness, which decentres sightedness as the primary mode of perceiving and situating oneself in the environment.”
Photography by the blind has developed in the past quarter century and is an integral part of the new field of disability art culture. Curators in Europe and the US are showcasing works of disabled artists through exclusive exhibitions and also exhibiting work of disabled artists along with their non-disabled peers. Many disabled artists are themselves putting up shows, and several are invited to exhibit, one instance being the exhibition of a blind Singaporean artist at the UN Headquarters in May 2005.
Art opens up the mind to unexpected ways of viewing the world. In addition to the aesthetics embedded in art, its vital functions as an instrument of change, a reminder of diversity, and as a source of healing and development cannot be overlooked. Every human being has the creative potential to be an artist. Art programmes can help individuals express themselves, develop their confidence, use their imagination and ignite their creativity. Support for art education and practices should be accessible to all as a basic right without prejudice to class, language, gender, religion, and physical or mental limitations.
Partho Bhowmick is an independent photographer who after two years of independent research on art and blindness started Blind with Camera project www.blindwithcamera.org in early 2006 to teach photography to visually impaired people. In 2010, he launched the world’s first virtual e-school of photography for visually impaired people www.blindwithcameraschool.org which has been able to train over 500 visually impaired individuals. He also conducts blindfold “sensory” photography workshops for sighted people with visually impaired photographers as trainers. In 2009, he founded the Beyond Sight Foundation, a registered non-profit organisation to promote participation of people with visual impairment in art & cultural practices. His exhibitions in India and abroad are inclusively designed with the use of photographs accompanied by touch & feel raised pictures, Braille, large prints and audio description. He has written and compiled three books, See As No Other and multi-sensory book In Touch With Pictures and Facing the Mirror.. Partho Bhowmik has won the NASSCOM Social Innovation Award in 2011, and the Karamver Puraskar in 2009 as well as the Manthan Award: South Asia & Asia Pacific on Digital Inclusion for Development under category Accessibility and Inclusion in 2014. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.
Your writing is so beautiful, amazing and sensitive Partho- as wonderful as the pictures taken by the artists who ‘view’ them from a different perspective. What an enriching experience. Though I have long known many people connected with other art forms particularly music, among those with blindness, but to see them in the space of visual art is truly revolutionary, and I think it pushes the boundary of art itself so far- kudos to your wonderful efforts too.