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Braving the Sight Unseen: Interview with Blind Photographer Timothy O’Brien
Posted By Qiana Mestrich On April 17, 2009 @ 7:11 am In Art of Photography | 5 Comments
As photographers, our eyes are our most prized possession. The very nature of photography is visual; even the camera lens itself is an invention that attempts to duplicate the operation of the human eye.
So what if the ocular ability you’ve always relied on no longer existed?
I recently had an opportunity to interview blind photographer Timothy O’Brien, whom I met on Twitter; you can follow him @BlindPhotogs . I think you will be enlightened, as I was, by his insights into how blind photographers can practice this art — and why they pursue it despite the challenges.
For many it might be hard to comprehend the concept of a “blind photographer.” Can you describe exactly who and what that is?
The simple answers is that any photographer who is visually impaired is a “blind photographer”. But that does not really answer the question. Almost four years ago, I set out to answer that question by starting agroup for “blind photographers”. I had no idea what to expect. The group now has almost 150 members. Many types of are represented, from neurological conditions to retinal diseases (like mine, Stargardt’s) to profound blindness. Each blind photographer brings unique challenges and perspectives to the camera, making encapsulating blind photography impossible.
Personally, I came to photography as my eyesight deteriorated past the threshold of legal blindness a few years ago. As I photograph, I imagine what is in the viewfinder. Since I have functional vision, I am able to explore visually the scene that I am to capture, though this inspection must be done at close quarters. By the time I click the shutter, I have stitched together an idea in my head of what I am shooting. Later, I see what my camera actually captured. Like a film photographer, opening my digital rolls hold many surprises, some funny, most worthless and, fortunately, a few gems.
What are the challenges to being a blind photographer?
The challenges are unique to each blind photographer. These challenges depend on the shooter’s goals, abilities and equipment. For most, the primary challenge centers around getting what we want to capture actually onto the camera sensor with only partial, if any, use of the viewfinder. Some use P&S cameras with large LCDs, some use a sonified viewfinder. I keep a close watch on my scene and zoom out a bit, cropping away dead space later rather than missing any important element.
A second common challenge is reviewing our own work. For the partially sighted, an LCD screen, even a large one, is useless, but a large screen monitor on a desktop PC can solve the issue. For the more profoundly blind, this challenge has no easy solution. Blind photographers have explored tactile and sonified displays, but many simply rely on descriptive feedback from trusted colleagues.
A secondary challenge is mobility. Most visually impaired photographers cannot drive, myself included. As interesting as photographing subjects withing walking distance of my home is, I love to shoot people and events, to shoot life as it happens. Finding interesting people, places and points of view requires the ability to move around. Lugging gear on the bus is no fun and relying on the kindness of friends and family for wheels gets old quickly.
What are the advantages to being a blind photographer?
That is an unusual question, both for its rarity and for its insight. I have spent some time thinking about this issue recently and have come to some preliminary findings. Others will disagree, I imagine, and this should lead to some good discussions.
Visually impaired photographers have difficulty with details, but see the broad outline of the image. We are also more sensitive to light and lighting conditions. For everyday tasks, I need sufficient light to see, but bright light can be quite uncomfortable. So I naturally look to use light efficiently, balancing the ambient to bring out more information without overpowering the scene. Using the right quality, direction and amount of light improves my depth and detail perception. This, I believe, is not only reflected in my photography, but improves it.
Describe your process of capturing images. Do you have any special techniques or equipment?
There is nothing obvious in my camera bag or among my other equipment to suggest my visual impairment. Although I am constantly on the hunt for adaptive equipment, I have yet to find tools that work for me. I am considering tethering my camera for the immediate feedback that I cannot get from my LCD. As I do not use a studio and do not have a laptop, I have not yet found it practical to test tethering out.
I have made minor modifications to my equipment so I can change settings without having to read dials. Tactile bumps, thanks to gaffer’s tape, go a long way to helping me find manual mode on the camera or set my ancient Vivitar flash’s power setting. My main concession to my visual impairment is a large monitor. Without that, seeing my own images would be much less rewarding. Processing the images, mainly cropping and color correcting, would be impractical.
Other blind photographers have come up with some ingenious adaptations of their own. One uses a cellphone and specialized software to create a sonified viewfinder. Others combine their walking cane and monopod into one. Others use viewfinder enlargers. Others use medium and large format cameras.
When the camera comes out, I face a challenge of what settings to use. I need to change to my low vision reading glasses to find settings on my camera and this is quite awkward. I often lose the moment. I have started to set the camera to either aperture ormode. From there, I know which knobs to turn to adjust settings back and forth between the two modes and adjust the relevant setting. Part of my mind is always visualizing how the scenes around me would look in a photo. When I feel a scene would make a good image, I start pressing the shutter.
I take my photos knowing that I will later fix them in Lightroom. I bought a 10, not because I need such large images per se, but knowing I can’t frame images well in the viewfinder. In the viewfinder, I only get a sense of my subject and the space surrounding it, so I need to zoom out or back up a bit to make sure I do not cut off detail. I also take multiple shots. I am lucky if one in 10 shots is a reasonable image and one in a hundred a good one.
Once in Lightroom, I start processing the individual photos. First comes straightening and cropping. Then comes, usually darkening the image and bringing out shadows. I am not sure why I need to do this, probably it helps me see the details in the image. I will take breaks during this process, often taking days to complete it. Looking through my shots is an emotional roller coaster, with frustration from missed shots to excitement over unexpected gems. Much of the frustration is exacerbated due to my sight as many images are lost by my inability to see through the viewfinder the image I have in my head.
When was the blindphotographers.org  Web site started and what is its mission?
Several years ago, I found myself wondering if I was the only visually impaired person crazy enough to use a camera. I had joined Flickr by then, so I founded the Blind Photographers group to see if others would join. The community has grown slowly, but steadily, to almost 150 members. Besides exploring each other’s work, we share trials, tribulations, tips and tricks. Visitors, often students or researchers, frequently ask questions about who we are and how we shoot.
We have also begun several group projects, including Project BlindSighted where we highlight and discuss individual member’s photographic techniques and processes. Though Flickr is a great place for us to share and chat, it does not offer us a good way to organize our projects, find our fellow blind photographers and to present our work to the wider world. So last fall, we decided to build a Web site around our Flickr community. In its initial phase, we have launched the centerpiece photo blog at photos.blindphotographers.org . Additionally, we have a companion site where we can document our projects and profile our members as well as add useful reference material about blind photography.
What advice would you give photographers — blind or not?
My advice is to enjoy what you do. Blind photographers face substantial hurdles to be photographers. So we all have a passion for shooting, otherwise we would never pick up a camera. Photography is still a struggle, especially when visual abilities change, but passion is the key. With passion comes the will to be better, do better, shoot better.
Describe your dream photography assignment.
My dream assignment is to show the world how I see. I have yet to come to grips with this assignment. In part, this is because I do not know how everyone else sees. In part, this is because I am still learning how I see. This is a lifelong challenge, I think, and one I hope to accomplish image by image.
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