Photography and the act of seeing seem inextricably linked. So how does a blind photographer see the world?
"We think of the blind as living in darkness or shadow: in fact they live in the world of light, and the world of people, creatures, and objects that [all people] must negotiate in order to get on with things," says Mel Gooding, co-editor of The Blind Photographer, a new book from Princeton Architectural Press that features 150 images captured by blind and partially sighted individuals.
Being blind doesn't mean total loss of vision, but the artists in the book all share some sort of vision impairment: some have lost their sight over time; others have had partial sight since birth. Certain conditions limit the depth a person can see. The artists hail from Latin America, India, China, and the United Kingdom, revealing a little-known international subculture surrounding blind photographers. Many of the artists are affiliated with Ojos Que Sentien, an organization in Mexico that uses photography as art therapy for the blind.
That said, Gooding, and his co-editor Julian Rothenstein were "never concerned, editorially, with any questions about photography as therapy or self-empowerment," he says. "The photographs stand for themselves as evidence of creative drive and imaginative, artistic engagement with the world, just like all good photography."
Stylistically, the photos couldn't be less alike, but they often share themes. "From my experience teaching photography to blind people I have noticed that blind people from birth tend to get inspired more by textures, nature, or portraits," says Gina Badenoch, the founder of Ojos Que Sentien and a photography teacher. "Some of their images can be more abstract—more about a feeling—whereas people who went blind are also interested in documenting things and places they used to see or visit."
Depending on the photographer's type of vision loss, she or he might be able to photograph independently or by collaborating with an assistant. It also helps that modern digital cameras can automatically meter light and focus, which some partially sighted photographers rely on, just like fully sighted photographers.
Alicia Melendez, an artist from Mexico who suffered a retinal blow-out five years ago, turns her lens on close-ups of everyday items. Before she lost her sight, she didn't think photography was important, but now it's a way for her to communicate her emotions. Palmira Martinez, also from Mexico, documents swimmers in a lap pool. Alberto Loranca shoots an action figure in various locations and imagines the toy as a metaphor for his internal strength. Evgen Bavčar, a Slovenian artist, describes his moody images as "perceived by my third eye, that of my soul."
The abstract, emotive side of the work is what spoke to Godding the most as he edited the book. An art historian and arts writer, he became fascinated with the work of blind photographers as it became more prominent in recent years. It was less about technical merit and more about understanding how the photographers perceive the world, which is more similar to sighted individuals than he expected.
"These images are made by quite deliberate expressive, evocative, symbolic or informative intent, and bring home to us with great sharpness of effect that we live in the same world, have the same desires, pleasures, fears, joys and sadnesses, and that we think about the same things, in all the different ways available to the human being," he says.
For readers who are blessed with 20/20 vision, the book holds a lesson: interpreting the world is not the same as seeing, just as hearing isn't listening. "I would invite people when looking into the book, to use their perception, not only sight," Badenoch says. "The photographs are great in itself, no matter if they where taken by blind or visually impaired people. If a sighted person only looks without perceiving the frames and stories behind them, they won’t get the value of this work."
Gooding agrees, and hopes the book invites readers to understand their world in new ways. "In the end, it’s a book of beautiful, enchanting, and interesting photographs—images created by the light we all inhabit," he says.
[All Photos: courtesy Princeton Architectural Press]