Photo Voice – Sensory Photography.

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Why would blind and visually impaired people want to take photographs?

1. Because they want to.
Photography is fun, accessible, sociable and satisfying. It is a way to express, record, affect and analyse, and it remains one of the most prolific and popular mediums of the modern age. The sharing of photos through albums, email, social networking sites and mobile phones is something many people take for granted, despite the fact that they would not describe themselves as ‘photographers’. Photographs forge connections between people, even over distance, acting as a focus for discussion and a prompt for positive reminiscing. As well as taking photographs, most people find themselves interacting with photographs hundreds of times a day as they go about their normal routine. Being denied access to this aspect of society can be isolating, and can compound feelings of powerlessness. Many blind and visually impaired people are, therefore, excited to have the opportunity to take pictures and get involved in the visual world – a world they might previously have been excluded from.

2. Because they can.
Although it is not commonly known, there are a number of highly regarded professional photographers throughout the world who are blind or visually impaired, and many more enthusiastic amateurs who overcome their lack of sight to capture fantastic photographs to share with friends, family and public audiences.
Sight, for photographers who can see, becomes their principal working tool, to recognise and interpret the objects that surround them. It is for this reason that photography is considered a visual art. However, photography is more than just a visual art – it requires a process of identification, reaction and creation, regardless of what senses are used to achieve this. Blind photographers use senses in addition to and other than sight to create images. Touch, smell and sound are used to discover subjects, understand the impact of distance, and frame shots. Furthermore, partially sighted people often utilise what sight they have extremely effectively, and with an attention to visual details that fully sighted people would not necessarily demonstrate.

3. To communicate
The great power and potential of any creative undertaking is to engage and create a dialogue with an audience. The photographic medium is used to communicate something, regardless of whether the photographer can see or not, and a key element to photography is the emotions involved at the very moment the image was taken.

The language of images has become so strong, that by producing and sharing a photograph you naturally start a dialogue. For the blind and visually impaired, who have a limited ability to view the final images they create, sharing their photographs and having others respond to them is an essential part of the photographic process. It can be immensely rewarding for a blind or visually impaired photographer when someone describes what they see in their images back to them, and a dialogue that enables the photographer to share their perspective of the world ensues.

For blind or visually impaired people, therefore, photography goes beyond its technical and visual aspects. It is about a process of creation, expression and communication that can help address feelings of isolation and provide the means to engage in society, as well as creating a forum for dialogue between the seeing and non seeing world. The very concept of photography by blind and visually impaired people provides an opportunity to explore ideas around vision, blindness, sensory experience and imagery, and to create the means for dialogue and understanding between blind people, visually impaired people and sighted people.

4. To challenge perceptions
Many of the participants in the projects run by PhotoVoice and Sight of Emotion have expressed delight in the fact that they are doing something that many people would not think possible. Photography is so absolutely entwined with the idea of ‘seeing’ in most people’s minds that the concept of blind and visually impaired people taking photographs challenges their deepest preconceptions about what the visually impaired are capable of and what it means to ‘see’. The common perception is that sight is of paramount importance in life, and projects allow visually impaired people to demonstrate the possibilities of different ways of seeing and the capacity of our other senses. It can be extremely satisfying for participants who wish to escape from the ‘disabled’ tag to show that they can create strong visual imagery, and succeed in a creative activity most likely to be considered difficult for them. Enabling participants that want to take control over the kind of imagery that depicts issues around sight loss, and people affected by it, is significant. Stereotypes of blind or visually impaired people often focus on the most visible signifiers such as the white cane, the dark glasses and the guide dog, and overlook the diversity of conditions, causes and levels of sight loss, while imagery associated with information about eye health is often focused on emphasising the debilitating loss of an essential sense, rather than portraying the reality of life continuing without it.

Communicating the concept

One of the challenges faced when running a photography project with blind and visually impaired people is explaining the concept. For many people the mind rebels at the idea of blind people creating visual imagery, and it can sometimes be a barrier to the project’s acceptance by partner organisations, participants and public audiences. It is possible for the project to be seen as gimmicky or pointless, and it is important to overcome this rather than play on the ‘shock value’ of the concept to attract attention.

Things to remember when explaining the concept:

  1. Emphasise the details and value of the photographic ‘process’, rather than the ‘product’. Newcomers to the concept may be overlooking the process and simply wondering what value the actual photographs can have, and how they can be of good quality. Emphasise that the photographers achieve results using what they have (the other senses) rather than despite lacking sight.
  2. Use case studies of blind and visually impaired photographers and quotes from them or project participants if possible, showing it is an existing and active field. This is the most quick and effective way to demonstrate the possibilities and potential.
  3. Emphasise the role of photography as a social medium for recording reality, commemorating life, communicating events and attitudes, and prompting discussion, rather than being a purely aesthetic visual medium.
  4. Highlight how prevalent photography is throughout all aspects of society, and how isolating it can be to be excluded from this.
  5. Explain the ways photography can be made accessible to blind and visually impaired people as well as created by them – audio descriptions, tactile diagrams, magnification etc. Ensure it is understood that they can appreciate the medium as well as create it.
  6. Compare photography to reading a book or listening to radio, highlighting that with both experiences one creates images in the mind, without the use of sight.

About phonarphotosense

PHOTOSENSE is a exploration of narrative and the response of the different senses.

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