Open Your Eyes

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How many of you realise that there are blind photographers? I certainly didn’t, until Arlene Harris asked me for some tips to help her blind friend take better photos with his iPhone.

I have to admit at first I thought, how on earth can I answer that? Then it really got me thinking and I started to do some research. I would like to thank Arlene for asking me this question because it has certainly opened my eyes. It had never occurred to me that a blind person could take a photo – how naive was I to think that?

I have found all sorts of interesting information all over the Internet – and I would urge you to Google “how does a blind person take photos?” You will be amazed by what comes up. It’s fascinating.

First though, just watch this short video about Gary Waite – and prepare to be blown away.

“The camera lens is like a window, an open window. A dark block was there – the camera has given the opportunity to open a window.”
– Gary Waite, 2010

I was totally gob smacked after watching this – and I bet you are too. I’m sure you want to know how on earth someone who can’t see, can take photos and what they do with them afterwards if they can’t see them? Well, I wanted to know too, so I gave Gary a call and you can read the interview below.

But first – what can we learn from this?

The thing that instantly struck me, was that if Gary can take photos like this, without the use of his sight – then this should give sighted people a whole lot more confidence (which is what this website is all about). Gary has to rely on his other senses to enable him to feel the pleasure of taking a photo, and not only that – to be able to get a sense of pride from the reaction of the people he’s photographing – which is what really counts for most photographers.

By having to use different methods, Gary, and many other blind photographers (or sensory photographers as they prefer to be called) are not concentrating on the technical side – they are keeping everything so simple. They really are shooting emotionally, and showing how much satisfaction can be gained from doing this.

REACTION

The other key thing I noticed about this video is the reaction of the people he is photographing. When have you ever held hands with the shop assistant over the counter in a fast food joint? Look how much rapport is going on between the subjects and the photographer. The couple on the promenade are enjoying every minute of having their photo taken.

Images from Nokia video, black & white shot: Gary Waite

Images from Nokia video, black & white shot: Gary Waite

Why is this? I think its because they empathise with him so they forget about themselves. All the technicality and fear has been taken away – and this is how photography should be. If anything is going to give people confidence, it’s this video. We can learn so much from this. I am always being asked, “how do you get people to relax for a photo?” – and my answer is always that you have to work together with your subject so you both enjoy what you are doing. Because Gary cannot rely on his sight, he has to use other senses and in doing so he breaks down the barriers that are so often there – this is what we all have to do in our own different ways.

Because the subjects are fascinated by what he is doing, they are keen and willing to help him achieve what he wants to achieve. People empathise with him because he is blind, so they are starting the shoot from a very different perspective.

When you are shooting people, this is the key thing – you need to develop a relationship with them. When you understand that your subject is nervous, and you understand how they feel about having their photos taken, you can start to break down those barriers. When you do this, they learn that you want to work with them to achieve the best photos you can of them, and they start to relax.

Photographing people is a process of understanding and working together.

COMPOSITION

The other thing to learn from this video, is how much time it takes Gary to work out the composition. He doesn’t just point and shoot, because he can’t. He really has to think about what he is doing. When he photographs the curve of the wall in the video, he is showing us how we have to engage with every part of what we are photographing. We have to stop and study it, engage and understand it, in order to compose the photo.

Images from Nokia video

Images from Nokia video

This doesn’t mean standing for ages taking lots and lots of shots and hoping that one is going to work. It means doing 90% of your work before you take the photo. He stops, listens, touches and feels what he is going to shoot. Then he takes the photo. Just “seeing” a photo is not enough. Sometimes you get lucky and it’s right there in front of you, and you shoot it. But invariably if you study something, you get a better picture – because you discover more than you did initially.

SO HOW DOES HE DO IT?

Gary has no sight whatsoever – he can hardly make out shadows and can’t focus on anything at all; it’s completely black, so he doesn’t even know if the lights are on or off.

He suffers from a hereditary eye disorder, which has caused his sight to deteriorate until he now has no sight at all. However, because he used to be able to see, he can remember what things look like and he knows what the colour red is, for example.

He has developed an amazing sense of direction and distance, so he can work out how far away he needs to stand from a person in order to get them in full length, or do a head shot.

He starts by touching the person on their head, then their shoulders, and then holding their hands in order to work out where they are and where he needs to stand to be sure to get them in the shot. He then lines himself up with the person, and walks straight back several feet, depending on how much of the person he wants in the picture.

He learnt his skills by going on the Sensory Photography course with PhotoVoice, an amazing charity who help people overcome their difficulties through photography. Despite wondering how it could be possible, he was so intrigued that he wanted to try, if only to prove that he could do it. The result was that he gained a huge sense of achievement in being able to overcome his disability.

“When it comes down to it, photography is more than the creation of something visual. It’s a communication of a moment, of an experience, of a thought process. And if that moment has been experienced with senses other than sight, it can still be captured in a photograph.”
– Matt Daw, Projects Manager. www.photovoice.org

All images: Shot on the Sensory Photography, PhotoVoice course by Gary Waite

All images: Shot on the Sensory Photography, PhotoVoice course by Gary Waite

On the course Gary learnt to hold up a frame in front of a person and feel the square when he had it in place, which helped him work out where he needed to be, in order to get the picture.

With objects – he used the lid of a shoebox, placed the objects within the edges of the lid, and composed his picture when he was happy with where the objects were and the shape they made together within the shoebox.

logo-photovoiceCLICK HERE for a short video insight into how it’s done.

So what does he do with the pictures, if he can’t see them?

Gary gets huge pleasure from taking the pictures: imagining what he wants to shoot, working with the people and then capturing the photo. He loves the fact that his subjects get double the pleasure, because they can actually see the photo too. He says that people sometimes describe to him what is in the photo afterwards, and he laughs and says, “I know what’s in the photo, I took it!” He doesn’t actually have to be able to see the photo in order to get the pleasure from shooting it.

And how true is this with sighted photographers? The pleasure really is in shooting the pictures, and the time you spend with the subjects. Being able to see the result is a bonus of course – but really, the best bit is when the person sees the picture and loves it – that’s the icing on the cake.

If we see photography as a process rather than an end result, it helps us to be more creative, and watching Gary’s video really brings this home. It’s concentrating on what we are shooting, and how we are shooting that is the most important bit. For Gary, the fun of listening to the seagulls, or the rollercoaster, and being able to get them in the shot – that’s satisfaction.

Image: Gary Waite

Image: Gary Waite

The other thing to learn from this is how important it is to direct people. You can’t expect people to perform for you; they need to know what you want. Gary has no choice, he has to direct people – he has to know exactly where they are and what they are doing, in order to control his shoot.

We need to do a similar thing. If you think of your picture as a frame (rather like Gary’s frame or shoe box lid), and place your objects or direct people within that frame, you are already half way to composing a great shot.

Reading other articles on sensory photographers, helps you to understand how much photography is also about getting something out into the open. You can think and imagine all sorts of things, whether you can see or not, and photography is a way of getting those feelings out and making them real.

There is far more to photography than just the picture. The excitement of meeting new people, sharing a day in their lives, learning all about what makes them tick. The fun you can have working together on the shoot. The sense of achievement and pleasure when they see the results and are thrilled with the way you made them look.

When you take a picture of a person that connects with them emotionally – it makes you feel amazing and it honestly can be truly life changing.

Take another look at Gary’s video – and look at how he uses different senses to shoot a picture. This video can’t fail to make you think, and the confidence it will give you is priceless.

Thank you Gary.

Here are some links if you’re interested in learning more.

Beyond Sight (2007-2008)

The PhotoArgus – Inspirational Blind Photographers and their Portfolios

And if you want to know how an iPhone can help partially sighted people take photos, check out this link:  Wired Gadget Lab – Blind Photographers Use Gadgets to Realize Artistic Vision

A big thank you to Gary Waite and PhotoVoice for their help and support in putting this blog together. You are all amazing.

Annabel x


PhotoVoice have some great events coming up – check out their site for details: http://www.photovoice.org/events