Natasha Desai invites you to step into a different plane of perception… One that is filled with the rich glimpses of the everyday scenes that the sighted take for granted but are cherished deeply by those who aren’t.
Hugo Weaving plays a blind photographer called Martin in Proof, a movie made in the early nineties. Around thirteen minutes into the movie, Russell Crowe’s character, Andy, laughs at him, saying “A blind photographer… now that goes down as weird of the week.”
When I talk about blind photographers, I find that a reaction of this kind is not uncommon. The biggest question that comes up is, how would a person with very poor sight or without any, be able to “see”? These assumptions of what the visually challenged can or cannot do, turns out to be a limitation of our own sighted experiences.
The visually impaired have a visceral way of viewing their surroundings. Other senses seem to be ‘heightened’ as their brain can better process these sensory perceptions, free from the overpowering optic information that floods in.
When Sergei Stroitelev approached the Association of the Blind in Nepal, wanting to teach photography, it was met with a good kind of surprise and acquiescence. It had never been attempted before. A class of ten young adults—Juna, Laxmeshwor, Parbat, Ram, Sajina, Sambhu, Shilpa, Sumi, Sundeep and Teknarayan—who were all between 18 to 25, attended the workshop.
“When I first came to the class, the kids were reluctant. They asked with confused candour, ‘How will we do this? We cannot see.’” With Sergei’s persuasion, however, they decided to go through with it.
Geared with single-use Kodak film cameras and basic lessons, the amateur photographers set out to photograph…whatever they felt like. “I emphasised that the shutter should be released when they felt something inside. I gave them a week to finish their assignment, afterwhich we met again and discussed their experiences. I sent the film to be developed and we waited with great impatience,” said Sergei. Once the images arrived, Sergei described each one to them. “I was astonished. The pictures were of simple things depicted in a way I found enchanting—sky, trees, water, cityscapes, friends, family members—things that we as sighted people see every single day. We don’t realise that there are some who are deprived of this. The photographs were full of sense and feeling.”
In Proof, a few scenes after Martin gets scoffed at, we see the two characters at a restaurant. The night before, Martin and Andy paid a visit to the vet, with an injured cat. And Martin says, “…I probably know more about what was in that vet’s waiting room than you (Andy) would. I know there were two fluorescent lights because they have a distinctive hum. The light above us was faulty because it flickered intermittently. I know the floor was covered in old, worn linoleum, because I could feel it through my shoes, and I heard footsteps on it. I could tell there was a woman wearing high heels and expensive perfume, and I could also smell disinfectant and sick animals. And you, a mixture of detergent and garlic.”
Much like Sergei, a Singaporean photographer Bob Lee, taught a group of visually impaired people how to shoot. For the exercise, one of his students decided to photograph his daily walk. A set of images emerged of sidewalks, manhole covers, traffic lights, rumblers, corners, flower pots, other small tactile parts on the pavements. While they looked mundane, each photo was an important marker that told the man where to turn, stop, and continue walking, and more that we don’t realise.
What struck me the most about Bob’s experience was, “Don’t underestimate any body’s ability to learn new things.” You may wonder at this point, why would the blind need to learn an activity whose result they cannot enjoy in its true sense? Elizabeth Roth, a blind photographer from California, summed it up the best, “You don’t need vision to show perspective.”
The students in Sergei’s class had unknowingly produced evocative images of their perspectives. A loving roommate, an adorable nephew, the gurgling of a small brook, an abacus that felt funny to touch, the smell of freshly cut grass as the wind carried it, the shuffling feet and sing-song voices of a school assembly, the tinkling bell of a cycle passing by, the drone of an airplane in the sky surrounded by angry clouds.
Each photograph made, was guided by a feeling, an emotion, or an auditory or tactile response. These images were rich with a simple desire to document what made them happy or what they yearned to see. “When I was describing the images to them, the kids who had their doubts, were smiling the broadest. They were happy because they completed the task. another challenge, overcome successfully. Confidence in an unknown and strange situation—that was they learnt.”
Sergei’s workshop confirmed a long held belief about both the visually challenged and photography. “The blind have a rich inner world. There is a lot they feel strongly about but can’t see it, and photography offers them a way of documenting what their perceptions are. Pictures are made with your heart and mind. Sometimes blind people are misunderstood, and discriminated against. The result of the project should stand as a testament that despite their disability, blind people are sensitive and smart.”
One of the students, Sajina really took to photography and continued shooting even after the workshop ended. The Association for the Blind invested in cameras that she and others at the center use frequently.
I ask to you to ponder, why is it that when you truly enjoy yourself, you do so with your eyes shut? Why is that when we try hard to remember something or, concentrate on a thought, that we squeeze our eyes tight? Why do we meditate, hope, kiss and make love… with our eyes closed?
This article originally appeared in the July 2017 issue of Better Photography.
Sergei Stroitelev is an award-winning independent documentary photographer, published in National Geographic Russia, VICE, lenta.ru magazines and Getty Images agencies. During his stay in nepal from 2014-15, he worked with organisations like Red Cross Nepal, Nepal Leprosy Trust covering human rights issues.