Tag Archives: art

Review: „The Wake“ by Tom Murphy with Audio Description at The Abbey Theatre

A few weeks ago we travelled to Dublin to see the latest production by the Abbey Theatre of Tom Murphy’s “The Wake”, a play portraying the materialism of Irish small-town communities in the early 1990s. It reveals how far most members of so called respectable families are prepared to go to satisfy their desire for power and wealth.

Accessible Performances

So far 2016 was a great year for fans of audio described theatre performances and I hope the continuing international interest in Irish arts will further not only creative art production, but also help to increase the availability of caption and audio description for patrons with visual and hearing impairments. I have written about how audio description works and the importance of making culture and arts accessible to everyone in a previous review.

The staff of the Abbey Theatre is very friendly and the lady who hands out the audio devices even recognised us from last year.

The Story

To the dismay of the rest of the O’Toole family, Vera suddenly reappears in her home town, endangering her sibling’s plan to auction the family hotel, which their mother left to Vera, in her absence. Vera however is more hurt about not being told about the death of her beloved grandmother. Although she resents not being consulted about the auction, unlike her money-obsessed siblings she does not really care about the buying and selling of property which she calls “the family game”.

While a lot of the time, Vera isn’t exactly pleasant and despite working as a prostitute in New York, she shows more courage than the others and is the most honest of the characters. Aisling O’Sullivan portrays Vera’s contradictory character beautifully. By coming home, the cosmopolitan, tough Vera turns back into a rebellious and vulnerable school girl for a while and seduces her teenage sweetheart Finbar and Henry, her sister Marcia’s pompous Anglo-Irish husband. Reversing the “Windows of the squinting valley”-theme they stage an alcohol and sex orgy in the hotel, with the whole town watching in horror through the windows. In spite of her eccentric behaviour all Vera really wants is to belong. After all, nobody can choose their relatives and their place of birth.

“What other society, town, civilised country would put up with it?”

To keep up the appearance of respectability, the siblings commit Vera to an asylum for the mentally ill, justifying their betrayal by saying it is best for everyone, including Vera herself. Locking up the most vulnerable members of society and those who simply refuse to fit in, has been a common way for Irish society to “solve” its “problems” for decades – Institutionalisation became the most expedient and profitable response to poverty, illness, orphans, “young offenders” and “fallen girls”. Finbar, labelled “Tinker” by the O’Tooles, too is a victim of institutionalisation. Abused by the priest and after spending his childhood in the industrial school in Letterfrack, he is constantly afraid of authorities and wants to be left in peace. While his dealings in scrap metal may not be entirely clean, compared to the O’Tooles, playing monopoly with the town, he is a straight businessman.

Tom Murphy himself is from Tuam in County Galway and according to a screen with a map, which decorates the stage in the final scene, the action takes place there. One of the reasons why the play resounds with the audience is, that the characters appear to be fashioned from real people. Everyone knows or has heard of a domineering brother married to a doctor’s daughter who gets through life only on pills, a greedy and jealous sister and a pontificating Anglo-Irish barrister with poetic ambitions who is too cowardly to embrace a bohemian life.

Humour

However, the play is not only dark, the characters interact brilliantly for some comic relief. Especially the funny dynamics between the feckless but likable Finbar (played by Brian Doherty) and the pompous Henry (played by Frank McCusker) is priceless. Their inability for the most part to understand each others language and thoughts highlights class distinctions, which, although traditionally disputed, do exist in Ireland. The wake-scene is no sugary happy ending, but it includes some great singing, reminding us that these ruthless and troubled people are descended from a rural society, which valued not just money, but also arts, kinship and wakes.

Language

I’d recommend Tom Murphy’s plays in general to visually impaired people, since everything important is expressed in dialogue. I recently read “Conversations on a Home Coming” and while I consider it a great play, read in silence the text became very repetitive. Unlike for example Shakespeare plays which include lengthy monologues, most Irish plays work only on stage. It is spoken language – witty exchanges of one-liners, dialect and colloquialisms, recitations and subtle changes in intonation – that captivates the audience. The language in Murphy’s plays – and the characters who use it – seem simple and everyday, but everything is carefully constructed to present a picture of Irish society, audience members recognise.

When booking the tickets I was told the play contain strong language, violence and nudity. While strong language is almost necessary in a realistic play, I wasn’t sure what to expect of the other two. I don’t mind violence and nakedness, if it’s not just to shock people, but serves a narrative purpose – which it did in this performance.

Audio Description

I thought I remembered the voice from the last time and I actually met the audio describer after one show. It was great to meet the person behind the voice in my ear and to thank her. I asked her if she couldn’t record the AD to make it available for multiple performances. Unfortunately, this wouldn’t work, because as soon as the silences between the dialogues would be a second longer, speech and recording could be out of sync.

There isn’t much to say about the AD. It blended nicely into the background, giving descriptions of cast, costume and changes on stage, while also leaving time to listen to the music. That’s the way it should be. Other audience members commented on Finbar’s comic expressions, when he didn’t have a clue or was too drunk to care what the others were on about. As I do in everyday life, I had to guess these subtleties without being able to see facial expressions and I’m not sure how they could be conveyed through words as part of the AD. The duration of the play was three hours, with a twenty minute interval. And the audio describer stayed attentive during the whole performance, a remarkable achievement.

Links

Abbey Theatre Dublin

see Arts & Dissability Ireland for upcoming audio described and captioned performances

 

 

 

2 men and 2 women on stage

Review: CARE by WillFredd Theatre with Audio Description

Although the number of audio described and subtitled live-performances has considerably increased over the last few years, they are still rare outside Dublin. Consequently, I was delighted when I received the Arts & Disability Ireland text newsletter notifying subscribers that WillFredd Theatre Company was to bring its newest production CARE to the Galway Town Hall Theatre. The show featured audio description for visually impaired audience members and subtitles for patrons with hearing impairments.

What is Audio Description?

People may know Audio description (AD) from TV programmes. It is a voiceover telling blind and visually impaired viewers, or indeed anyone who chooses to use it, information that is not conveyed through dialogue, music or sound. For example It would say something like: “John enters holding a folder under his arm. He is a well-dressed man in his forties.” I’m not familiar with the production side of AD, but it is important that the information is as objective as possible, so that the viewers can form their own opinion. Timing too is very important, since the voiceover should not overlap with the dialogue or give clues in advance or too late.

I only learned recently, that being an audio describer is a profession in its own right, which is currently not taught in Ireland. Unlike the AD on TV or DVDs, the voiceover for plays is usually live, since breaks in dialogues can vary slightly. Producing an audio description can take up to forty hours: The describer attends rehearsals, watches video footage, writes a script and finally performs it off stage.

Audience members get a one-ear -piece headset with two wheels, one for turning it on and off and one to adjust the volume. Personally, I think this is better than giving people a smart phone or developing an app because not everyone knows how to use them and the important feature of AD is its accessibility.

Going to the theatre as a visually impaired person

Before there can be an audio description there obviously has to be a play and while for me the AD definitely increases my enjoyment of the performance, plot and acting are still my main criteria when reviewing a play. I’m a regular theatre goer and having AD is the exception. Mostly I have to rely on what there is to hear, the bit of movement I can see from being seated in the front rows or whispered comments from friends. Thus, I tend to go to traditional plays with lots of dialogue. If they were offered with AD, I would give more experimental and dance pieces another chance. While I prefer to go to shows with friends and to talk about it over a drink afterwards, I would go on my own if I really want to see something.

CARE “a show about the people who add life to days, if not days to life”

CARE explores the daily work and private life of four hospice staff members, thus questioning and redefining our associations and often prejudices about what working, living, dying and grieving in a hospice is like.

Having seen numerous Irish plays, I expected something very dramatic and very dark, featuring tragic family stories and heartbreaking last words. Although CARE definitely has its sad moments – and does not culminate in a happy ending as such –, it is a beautiful depiction of compassion and love for people and life – simply summarised as CARE. The action could be set in any hospice in Ireland or indeed worldwide.

Interestingly, the protagonists are not the patients but the staff members: nurses, physiotherapists and social workers. The audience accompanies them through their daily jobs, their tea breaks and their private lives in the latter of which they have to deal with the stigma of pure death surrounding hospices. The main patient, a woman called Anne who is in her fifties dying of lung cancer and her husband and children who have to deal with her eminent death are narrated by the staff members. Having a clothes mannequin representing the patient avoids the pathos and victimisation commonly associated with the death of an individual, but I sometimes thought the patient could have shown some signs of life and agency not only through narrations but also through his or her own speech or movement. The main focus clearly lies on the way individual staff members interpret and deal with medical history, physical complaints, mental anxieties and relatives denying the impending death of a loved one and attending the death bed.  The last days in a hospice are not about dying they are about living as long and as comfortable as possible until the end. It was quite touching to see how the characters did their best to fulfil their patient’s personal last wishes to bring them some final pleasure. The play definitely changed my perception of hospices and the people who work their.

“Life is a sexually transmitted disease with a 100% mortality rate”

There is also some humour in the play, for example when a patient drinks a whole bottle of ”Baileys” through a straw, resulting in a terrible hangover in the morning, only to be cured with bacon sandwiches. To add some cynicism and serious social commentary on the “trolley crisis” in Irish hospitals, the play opens with a scene showing HSE administrators deciding how many beds are available and who gets them by rolling the dice.

I would have been able to follow the plot without audio description, but I would have missed a lot of details, especially the dance piece in the middle and the final Elvis impersonation. In theatre and film visual aspects like set, costume and gestures are important and sometimes not seeing them is missing an essential part of the performance.

The audio description was very good, a pleasant female voice in the background, discretely filling the silences between dialogues and music. There were a few background noises and I had to adjust the volume depending to what was happening on stage. Unfortunately, I missed the introduction describing set and characters who were already on stage when we entered the theatre. Overall the AD was helpful and objective as it should be.

Improving the communication between disability advocacy groups and “mainstream” institutions

As far as I could see, only a friend and I were using the audio description which surprised me, because there are quite a few blind and visually impaired people living in and around Galway city. So where were they? Perhaps, many people who would benefit from AD do not know that it even exists or are not aware which shows are audio described. While the information was widely distributed within the disabled community, it did not appear in mainstream print and online publications. Consequently, nobody in the local arts and theatre community knew about it. Often programme brochures are printed before all details concerning the AD are finalised. Nevertheless, AD should not be regarded as special feature for minority groups of little interest to the general public. Even if the majority of audience members will not use it, they may know someone who would benefit from it and spread the word.

Getting to the venue, especially from county Galway may also be an obstacle, but I have already written about the difficulties visually impaired public transport users encounter on a daily basis elsewhere.

Patrons with disabilities too are paying customers and – like all public sectors – culture and entertainment facilities should be as inclusive and accessible to everyone. Therefore it is essential that culture, media and government organisations establish effective networks with disability advocacy groups to inform the public. On the other hand, people with disabilities should try to avail themselves of AD and similar offers, because if they are not used they eventually will no longer be available.

According to their website:

WillFredd’s work engages with contemporary culture, actively inviting new audiences into the theatre. Through ethical encounters between artists and communities of place, space and interest, the company develop theatre which responds to and represents y elements of these communities.

By developing CARE together with real-life hospice staff and by providing audio description and subtitles to the performance, they certainly fulfilled their objectives. Thanks for considering my special needs as an audience member. I would also like to thank the Arts & Disability Ireland team and the staff of the Town Hall Theatre for an amazing, inclusive night out.

You can still see CARE audiodescribed and captioned in the Pavilion Theatre Dun Laoghaire on May 21st. The next accessible show in the Galway Town Hall is The Plough and The Stars on May 26nd.

CARE

Directed by Sophie Motley
Designed by Sarah Jane Shiels
Produced by Kate Ferris
Sound and Music by Jack Cawley and Sean Mac Erlaine
Choreography by Emma O’Kane
Costume Design by Sarah Bacon
Performed by Jack Cawley, Sonya Kelly, Sean Mac Erlaine, Eleanor Methven and Shane O’Reilly

Links

WillFredd Theatre Company

Arts & Disability Ireland

Photo by Marcin Lewandowski: L-R: characters Marie Ruane, John Doran, Paul Curley, Maaike van der Linde

all quotes are taken from http://willfredd.com/

Read my review of last year’s Abbey Theatre production of Marina Carr’s By the Bog of Cats

 

close-up of a white and pink blossom with yellow in the middle

Interview with visually impaired photographer Chelsea Stark

Tell us something about your self and why you are passionate about photography.

My name is Chelsea Stark and I am a 36-year-old visually impaired woman. I started taking photos when I was about 12. I found that it was a great way for me to see the world around me. And I really enjoyed it. Over the years I have had several kinds of cameras. The two cameras I really enjoyed using so far are my IPhone 6 and my Sony a 6000.

 

How did you and do you learn to take good photos?

I have not taken any formal classes or training. All I know comes from practice, practice, practice. I tend to take a picture when I see something that interests me, or something I want to see up close. And sometimes just that little act of wanting to know what’s around me helps me to get some amazing shots.

 

Do you get inspirations from works of other photographers?

My inspiration comes from my loving husband Robert Park. He is a fine art landscape photographer. He has some amazing skills and amazing images. I learn so much from him every time we go out.

 

Small waterfall surrounded by green

What equipment do you use and did your visual impairment play a role in choosing the right camera and accessories?

 I have used several different kinds of cameras. Recently I have been using a Sony a 6000 and an IPhone 6. For each piece of equipment that I have used or purchased over the years one key factor was that it must have a live View Setting or capability. It is the only way I can see what’s around me and compose a photo.

 

What are your preferred subjects to photograph and do you think your choice of objects and styles is influenced by your visual impairment?

I like to photograph animals, flowers and occasionally landscape when it moves me. I use the camera mostly to get a better view of my world around me.

silhouettes of horses on a beach

How do you find your subjects as a legally blind person? Do you have an idea in your head before you go out to take pictures?

I do not go out with any plans or ideas. I find that my best images just appear. I just go out with my equipment and shoot what presents itself to me. I have found that planning sometimes leads to disappointment. And that random photo that you never expected tends to be the best photo you’ve taken all day.

 

How do you choose which photos to post on your blog and social media? Do you get sighted people to describe them to you?

When I decide that I want to post something on my block or social media, I usually just post what I like. Sometimes I will get an opinion here or there. But It is my page with my rules and my images and I just go with it.

 

You always write a short text to each photo where it was taken. How important are the location and the story behind the picture to you?

I give a location if possible because the first question I always hear is: where was that taken? By putting the location out there that question is no longer a problem. I believe it’s very important to write a little something about each image that you post. It helps people to get in the right frame of mind while they look at your image. Plus it helps with Google’s indexing.

 Inside of an Southern European looking restaurant

Do you use photo shop programmes and how accessible do you find them?

I use either a program called Aperture or IPhoto. But often I will use built-in features on my IPhone or IPad. The latest version of IOS does a decent job on photo editing. If it needs more work than that, I will have my husband or someone else do some minor tweaks to the image in their photo editing program of their choice. But a lot of times it’s just straight from the IPhone or IPad. The already mentioned Aperture is fairly accessible and also allows me to catalogue photos.

 

Do you think photos taken by visually impaired people are different to those sighted people take and do you think it is fair to compare them?

I believe every photographer has their own style. And everybody’s images are different, regardless of whether they are blind, visually impaired or fully sighted. I’m not sure if it is fair to compare photographer’s work based on whether they have vision or not.  But if vision is left out of the equation being compared to other photographers is perfectly fine with me.

 

Would you disclose your visual impairment if you were to enter a photography competition and why yes or no?

Yes I would disclose my visual impairment. I belief letting people know about my visual impairment helps them to understand my work better and makes them see the artwork in a different way.

 

How do people on the street react when they see you taking pictures?

I’m not really sure. I’ve had nobody say anything to me regarding me taking photos. But I’m sure I’ve gotten some weird books once in a while.

 Three bottles of sauce

Could you imagine making photography your profession? And what are your aims for the future with regards to photography?

It would be cool to make photography my profession. Right now my goals regarding photography are just to take some interesting images around me. And maybe sell some here and there. But at the moment it’s just for fun.

 

Do you have some general tips for blind and visually impaired people who want to take up photography?

My suggestion for any visually impaired or blind person who wants to get into photography, is to get yourself an IPhone 6. It may sound like a silly thing to start with. But it is easy to learn and will cost a lot less then a good camera.  If you find that you actually enjoy photography and you want to get something that will give you the ability to have larger images, the next step would be to do some research on cameras and see which one fits your preferences and your capabilities with your hands and eyes.

Follow Chelsea

WordPress

Blogspot

Facebook

Twitter

Google+

Flicker

Pinterist

Instagram

 

Guidelines for picture descriptions

These guidelines were composed by the blind art historian Anja Winter in German. The list focuses on paintings but can also be applied to photographs. You can find more suggestions in how to describe pictures to blind people in our “Your Description” section.

1.  Facts

  • painter
  • title and genre
  • format and measurements
  • technique
  • time of origin

 

Description

  • composition (fore – middle and background)
  • main object (only what draws the viewer’s attention immediately)
  • colours

 

2. Impression, Mood

  • detailed description of what is to see in the picture
  • avoiding personal interpretation

 

3. General background information

  • (If extra knowledge is needed to interpret the picture)
  • Biographical dates of painter and if existing of client
  • Style and epoch
  • Distinctive characteristics from an art historian’s perspective
  • Historical or religious background

Copyright tastkunst 06. 2012

 

Describing Photos in Teamwork

This text is an afterthought to the description of  Darek’s windmill I wrote together with a friend.

We are always looking for new sighted people to describe the pictures on our blog to the blind and visually impaired photographers who took them and of course to all our other readers.  Most of our “picture describers”, as we call them are students from our workshops in Berlin or people who write professionally or as pastime. However, you don’t need to have a background in journalism, blogging or creative writing. In fact you don’t even need to be an expert on photography or visual arts. While knowledge and interests in these fields can be helpful, everyone can describe a picture. Processing and reflecting visual stimuli comes naturally to everyone who can see something, even if it’s just blurry shapes or light and shade. We do it all the time in our everyday lives and take it for granted without even noticing.

The Fear of the Empty Page

Since I write for this blog, I’ve talked to quite a few people, who said they are interested in our project but wouldn’t know how to describe a photograph to someone who can’t see it. Personally, I think the most difficult thing is to get started and simply try. It’s like writing an academic essay, prose, poetry or even a letter. We are afraid of the empty page, or nowadays the blank screen staring back at us. Once we’ve done the first step and simply started to write something, more words and sentences start to come naturally. Additionally, what we write in this first outburst doesn’t have to be perfect; it can always be changed, edited or even deleted.

The Process of Writing as Teamwork

For me,  writing blog posts and photo descriptions is actually easier than composing academic essays, because it gives me more creative freedom and there aren’t any guidelines, except those we set ourselves. Obviously we want readers to follow our thoughts and like our texts, so they have to be readable, structured and not full of mistakes. And I assume most of us want to write about something that matters to us and our followers.

Especially when writing academic papers, I try to get someone else to read and comment on my text. After reading them over and over again, we tend to overlook our own mistakes. Because we spend so much time developing them, the way we put our arguments on paper appears completely logical to us. Discussing our thoughts with another person often helps to express ourselves better and clearer. And finally we get to talk to another human being instead of sitting alone at our desk all day.

How does that help me to describe a Picture?

It only occurred to me recently, that describing a photograph could involve even more teamwork than editing academic texts, because the whole process of writing it can become a dialogue. It’s like having a jogging partner, if somebody else is involved and to some extend relies on your commitment, chances are you will be more likely to overcome your doubts or laziness or whatever it is that makes you hesitate, and actually do what you set out to do.

So one afternoon I sat a friend down to compose a description with me. We had talked about doing this for months, but never actually got around to doing it. This friend has no prior experience in creative or journalistic writing and only a casual interest in photography. He said his main reservations against writing a description on his own were, that he wasn’t sure how to compose a text people wanted to read and which aspects of the photo were relevant.

Questions over Questions

I still have some sight. Thus, I saw the general outline of the windmill, the blue sky and the green grass and I guessed there were trees. Starting from there I asked general questions to get a better understanding of the outlines of the photograph:

  • What are your first spontaneous reactions and associations?
  • What are the prominent objects?
  • How much space does the windmill take up?, Where in the picture is it?
  • Describe the mill in more detail: shapes, individual parts, colours, textures …
  • From which side are we looking at it
  • Can you see people? How many? Where are they in relation to each other and the mill?
  • What can you see of the people? What are they wearing? What are they looking at? What are they doing? (Body language, communication between them)
  • What else is there in the background? What kind of trees? Where are they in relation to the mill and the people?
  • Are there other details you wouldn’t notice at the first glance? Any objects captured by accident?

After a while I came up with lots of questions. One often led to another. I found the trick or secret was to give my friend prompts and suggestions he could use as a starting point. To find answers to some of the more specific questions like “What do the people wear” he had to look very closely. Sometimes he couldn’t see details very clearly and had to guess and speculate. The picture became almost a story. For example did the orange tiled roof belong to a visitor centre or just storage shed for equipment?

And what if I can’t see anything in the photo?

While being able to see the main objects in the photo helped me to start the dialogue, I think this method would also work for someone who is completely blind. You would just have to start with the very basics. Maybe after a while the blind person could tell the image he or she has in her or his mind so far, while the sighted person compares it to the photo and adjusts the description accordingly. Feel free to try it out and let us us know how it went.

A photo is like a person, you have to spend time with it to get to know it

I wouldn’t have noticed the little people on my own and if we wouldn’t have talked about it in such detail, we both would have flicked over the picture quite quickly. After spending some time with the picture it became more to us than just a nice shot of a windmill in the countryside on a bright summers day. We speculated where the mill is, who the people are and how they know each other.

Nowadays we see hundreds and thousands of pictures in the news and in social media. While it is great that almost everybody can take and share photos nowadays, sometimes I think this mass distribution lowers our appreciation of them. So, if you want to spend some more time and thought on an individual photo, describe a picture for our blog and maybe even do it with a friend.

 

 

 

black and white photo of a blind and a sighted woman positioning a camera to photograph another woman in front of them together.

Common prejudices blind and visually impaired photographers encounter

What’s the point in being interested in visual arts when you can’t see? You should do something with sound instead.

This is an attitude blind and visually impaired people working or being interested in visual media and arts encounter frequently. What’s the point in going to the cinema, a dance performance, a comic convention or an art exhibition, if you can’t see? Especially some completely blind people agree with this sentiment, and that’s their choice. Equally some sighted people enjoy listening to audio books, but aren’t interested in art galleries. My point is that everyone should be able to choose his or her interests independently. There are many blind musicians and DJs out there, and while it is possible that they work with audio media partly because their hearing is better trained to compensate for the lack of vision, first and foremost they do it because they love music. It may be hard to imagine for a sighted person, but our visual impairment isn’t the most important aspect of our lives.

You are blind, therefore you can’t appreciate visual art the way sighted people can.

To be honest that’s a rather impertinent assumption, especially if you have never met me before, and I hope my friends wouldn’t say things like that. Probably all you know about me is that I’m visually impaired which seems to be all you need to know to categorize me. I could be an art student or a visual artist, you don’t know. Additionally, appreciation is subjective and not measurable. People have told me long enough what I can and cannot do.

Considering you are visually impaired, your photos aren’t too bad

This is probably meant as some kind of complement, however a very condescending one. I doubt you could tell the difference, when presented with works of blind and sighted photographers or abstract art displayed side by side in a gallery. Comments like that are the reason why some blind artists choose not to disclose their disability.

You should add that you are blind when your work features in an exhibition, that makes it more interesting.

This ties in with the previous comment and again is probably meant as helpful advice. Nevertheless, disclosing or not disclosing a disability is a very personal matter and we want people to like or at least respect our art, not to pity us.

You won this price because you are blind and the jury was impressed and pitied you.

This is the flipside of “you should sell your disability to your advantage”. Whether we disclose our disability or not, someone will always disapprove of our decision, therefore it is best to follow intuition instead of people’s advice. Many artists reflect on their disability and its consequences in their works. I said before, that it is not the all defining aspect of our lives. Still it is there and we have to deal with it in some form or other every day. It would help enormously, if society would stop stigmatizing disability as something negative; it can also have creative potential. Some great works of art would not exist in the form they do, if the creators would not have had a disability or some physical or mental illness. Disability can be a way through which to explore art. It can raise awareness and create more positive representations.

You should be grateful that people book you as photographer, therefore you should work for free or charge less than sighted photographers.

Firstly, yes there are visually impaired people working as professional photographers. If you book a photographer for an event, you should meet and talk to him or her first. The person will more than likely tell you about the visual impairment; show you how he or she works and bring sample work. If you like what you see and hear, great! Employ the photographer, if not find someone else, but don’t ask disabled people to work for less or nothing, just because you assume they deliver lower quality results or need more time for the same amount of work. This attitude is simply discriminating.

Give me the camera! I take the picture for you.

Personally, I can live with: “Would you like me to take the picture for you?”. I would never give my camera or phone to a total stranger who demands it. He or she could simply run off with it. Overly helpful people mean well, but please ask if help is welcome, before forcing it on someone. I prefer to ask for help, if I need it, instead of being asked at every street corner. The tenth time, I’ll probably react annoyed and you’ll feel rejected and I’ll feel sorry for having being so abrupt later.

This photo is wrong; you missed the main object in the scene.

There is no right and wrong in art. Maybe I focus exactly on what I want to capture. I’d appreciate if you’d say something like: “Can I help you directing the camera towards what you want to photograph?”, instead of trying to take the camera away from me or to judge my art.

A blind photographer? You are not really blind! How many fingers do I show?

This question makes me feel like a curiosity in a freak show. The only person who gets an answer to that question is an optician. But now that you’ve asked already, in fact the majority of blind people are not completely blind.  Most still see some shapes, colours or light.

You don’t take your pictures yourself

By saying this you accuse me of plagiarism. I really don’t have to proof and justify myself and my art before you.

Do you have more examples? Or do you want to write a post from the perspective of someone who met a blind photographer?  Share your thoughts in the comments or send them to us at picdesc@gmail.com

Photo by Stephan Wilke

 

 

 

A blind art photographer tells her story: Part 5.2 Portrait Photography: General Tips

After reading about the different ways to categorize portraits, you may think you’ll have to learn all this by heart now, but the categories are only general guidelines and a great source of inspiration. Most of you already know some of the basics and do them right instinctively. Here are some more helpful tips for taking good portraits.

1. Background

 

You can either include the background as feature of your portrait or focus exclusively on the person. Even in a landscape portrait there shouldn’t be too many other people or details in the background, since this distracts the viewer’s attention from the small main person. Ideal for landscape portraits are natural scenes, buildings or art objects like statues. If you want a more lively surrounding, the main person should be bigger than other people in the background.

2. Focus

 

The focus is not only important for close-ups. Landscape shots often fail when the main object is somewhere at the margins instead of occupying the centre, where viewers tend to direct their attention first. Especially if they don’t know the depicted person, they are uncertain where and what the main motive is. In this situation the brain finds it hard to differentiate what is important and what not.

As blind photographer you can try to hear where your object is and focus accordingly. If you’re not certain, move the camera slightly around and take lots of pictures. This increases the chance of having a photo with the right focus in the end.

3. Perspective

 

The rule is, the photographer changes his or her perspective not the person who is being photographed. Moving around for the photographer often makes the model feel unnatural and the result are artificial, stiff pictures. If the model is allowed to sit or stand in a comfortable position, the result will look more natural and expressive.

The posture of the photographer too is important. When photographing someone who’s sitting it is often useful to take a few steps back and to crouch down.

4.  Facial expressions

 

A good way to get natural facial expressions is to talk to the model about random topics, maybe about him or her herself or your work. While talking you can walk around, taking pictures from various positions. With this method it is important to take many photos from the same position, because facial expressions can change within seconds. Most cameras and phones can automatically shoot many pictures within seconds.

5. Cropped view

 

Especially in close-ups often parts of the hair or the whole forehead aren’t visible. This method emphasises certain parts of the face, especially eyes or forehead. However, sometimes it simply looks as if part of the face was cut off by accident.

 

6. What to do when and how?

 

There is no right or wrong. It is important to have the model in the centre and to be careful with the background. Otherwise simply trust your instinct. What do you know about the person? Guess his or her mood or feelings at the moment? And if you feel comfortable with and are allowed, touch the person to get an overview about face, stature and clothing. Just try out different positions and perspectives.

 

If possible start by trying out the various options with the same person for a while. This makes it easier to get a feeling how each perspective and setting changes the appearance of the person and how different impressions and moods are created. It helped me a lot in the beginning and it was great fun.

 

Hopefully I could give you some inspirations.

 

Happy photographing!

 

Yours

Nadine

 

Translated from a German post by Nadine Alexander Meißinger with advice from Keith Harness.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Photography workshop in Canterbury, England: Day 3 and 4

On the third day of the workshop we took the train to Margate, a seaside resort near Canterbury. Before our train left. we had some time to visit a nice food market where we bought olives and different cheeses for our lunch.

We booked a nice air conditioned room with a terrace in the Turner Contemporary Gallery. Our task for this day was to find natural patterns made by light and shade or objects placed in symmetric arrangements by chance. As it is mostly the case with photos like that, I couldn’t come up with an original idea. Of course I took pictures of the banisters, the ugly concrete building with offices or flats towering over the beach and of the little lifeboat floating on the water behind it, but this was so obvious a choice, that I didn’t consider it creative enough.

concrete building over Margate beach.

It was only on our last evening when we took the bus to Whitstable, that I came across two motives with more or less natural patterns.

The first photo shows a row of almost identical green beach huts with a car parked in front of each and the second one depicts fishing nets in a coil on the ground with the shadows of me and a friend taking pictures of them. Both motives are manmade patterns, but they were not arranged for an artistic purpose which in a way makes them natural.

18 Beach Huts in Whitstable

20 Photographers in a Net

The Turner Contemporary is a nice modern building. The main exhibition on display was “Provincial Punk” by Grayson Perry. It is still there until September. We weren’t allowed to take pictures of the exhibition, presumably because the artist wanted to sell postcards with his works instead. That’s a real punk attitude! I didn’t mind that much. While everyone was looking at the works on display, I turned my back to them and took pictures out the window. There wasn’t much to see, except for a few cars and people going by. I suppose that’s punk too: turning your back on what everyone else came to see.

But I don’t want to be too cynical. I’m sure the artist has his reason for not allowing visitors to take photographs. Maybe the constant clicking of cameras would distract people from focusing on the work. At one of our last workshops in Berlin we talked about people going to art exhibitions or museums, taking photos of everything on display instead of taking there time to really look at it. Back at home nobody ever looks at all these pictures, but the people can tell themselves and others they missed nothing and got great value for their entrance fee. Everything is stored on a hard drive.

This behaviour sounds a bit ridiculous, but it’s a natural human reaction. There is always too much to see and read, too many impressions to take in. Our concentration span simply isn’t long enough to take in all the information. Thus, we automatically select consciously or randomly what we really take notice of. It is the same with photographs or even texts: something about them has to capture our attention; make them stand out from the flood of pictures and words pouring over us day in day out. Otherwise we see them without really noticing them.

But back to Margate: To be honest, I’m not really into abstract art. It often puzzles and confuses me and I feel rather silly when I can’t relate to something about which everyone else is raving. Sometimes I think the more people praise something the less they understand it. They want to disguise what they think is their “ignorance”. “What does the artist want to say?” is the wrong question. It is rather: “What do I personally see in it?”

I liked some of Perry’s tapestries and ceramic pots. They are skilfully made and reminded me of ancient Roman and Greek art, only that the motives were modern. A lady interpreted a vase for us, relating individual motives to the artist’s life and his views on the world. I wondered, if Perry himself would agree with this interpretation, but it was interesting. And I wouldn’t have seen all the intricate details, if they hadn’t been pointed out to me.

Before returning to Canterbury, we walked over the crowded beach promenade and went for a quick swim.

On the last day we showed each other some of our photos. I definitely enjoyed the workshop and I’d love to come again next year.

Finally, I recommend a visit to the Canterbury Tales Museum: http://canterburytales.org.uk/. The Canterbury tales is a collection of stories written by Geoffrey Chaucer at the end of the 14th century. As part of a storytelling contest about twenty pilgrims tell a tale. They are all on a pilgrimage to the famous shrine of St. Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral. The original text is in middle English and difficult to read. The museum presents five of the stories with the help of two actors, an audio guide in six languages and puppets dressed in medieval clothes. Blind visitors can do the tour a second time to touch the mannequins, animals and furniture.

The last post about the workshop will be about the pictures I selected for the upcoming exhibition in Canterbury Cathedral.

Our fashion show „The Beauty of the Blind”

In this post we’d like to introduce you to another of our projects – a fashion show and exhibition with blind models for blind visitors. It is called “Die Schönheit der Blinden” which literally means “the Beauty of the Blind”.

Fashion and Blindness?

The first reaction of some sighted readers might be similar to the reactions we got when we started our photography workshops for blind and visually impaired people. In fact some of my blind friends were sceptical if they would enjoy taking pictures and listening to other people’s descriptions of them too. According to common perceptions interests based on vision such as photography or fashion and blindness exclude each other. But as the increasing popularity of blind photography and fashion tips by visually impaired girls show, this is certainly not the case. Watch Lucy Edward’s amazing make-up tutorials for example. We are surrounded by sighted people every day so of course visual impressions matter to us. And naturally we feel better when we know we look well.

But blind models on the catwalk?

I think most women – and some men – would love to be part of a fashion show once in their lives; to wear beautiful and exclusive clothes, to be styled and photographed by professionals and to have the attention of the visitors. But if you’re not really lucky or rich and have what is commonly called a ‘perfect’ body your chances are extremely low. With a few exceptions there are hardly any professional models with a disability. The only visually impaired model I found is Amanda Swafford, who came third in cycle three of America’s Next Top Model, but as far as I know she’s not completely blind.

The seven male and female models in our fashion show are ordinary people with strong personalities. Initially, we asked a design school if they wanted to provide the clothes, but they wanted to do something experimental – yogurt containers were mentioned at some point – but our models didn’t want to be curiosities, they wanted to look good on the catwalk. Each model picked his or her own clothes.

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Picture: a young woman with brown hair dressed in a strapless white dress reaching down to the ground.

Braille writing on clothes

Initially, the Braille writing on the clothes was meant only for orientation. Karsten Hein, the photographer, was the only sighted person in the room and he couldn’t have directed all models at the same time. So if one model was occupied by reading the Braille on the clothes of the model walking in front of him or her, they would walk in a row. People go where their hands go. In the end the Braille became the most unique part of the collection. Antje Kunze, a dressmaker specializing in embroidering, invented a new embroidery technique to make the tiny dots readable and lasting. The models chose the texts written on their dresses, shirts, trousers and even hats themselves, some even wrote them. The majority of texts are poems (in German), thus the collection combines fashion and literature. Braille is not only useful, it can also be part of art. Nevertheless, we hope the embroidery technique will be used in the future to put stylish logos on clothes but also to help blind people to distinguish items in their shelves.

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Picture: Braille embroidery on the back of a white shirt. On the left a woman with dark glasses smiles into the camera.

Feeling an exhibition

All visitors of the fashion show were blind too. The clothes are black and white, because the cut and the texture of the cloth are more important than the colours in this context. The visitors touched the collection and read the Braille on the models, not on motionless manikins with a manufactured plastic body. Contrary to common clichés this was a new experience for all involved, because blind people rarely touch others to know what they look like. They form their first impressions from the voice and what a person says.

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Picture: A man kneeling down touching a black ribbon on a woman’s dress.

Currently, the exhibition consisting of the clothes, the pictures taken on the catwalk and accompanying texts is touring Germany. Every visitor is welcome to touch the clothes. We got fantastic feedback from all opening events and maybe we will be able to show the exhibition to an international audience in the future.

click here for more pictures.

Please feel free to get in touch if you have further questions or would like to describe some of the pictures in this article in more detail.

 

Suggestions on how to describe pictures to blind people

This article is roughly based on a German text by Erich Schmid.

For a start there are several degrees of being “blind”. It is a widespread misconception that blind people live literally in the dark. In fact most of them still see something even if their vision is reduced to lights or colours and vague shapes. Many lost their sight later in life or gradually, thus they know of colours and what things look like. For how long they have been able to see constitutes another important factor. There are people who lost their sight in their early teens but still see in their dreams. Consequently, it is important to them to keep their visual imagination alive.

Furthermore, many visually impaired people would not describe themselves as completely blind or fully sighted, rather as somewhere in between the two extremes. Pictures can help them to use their remaining vision as effectively as possible. Just think of magnifying glasses, binoculars or the freeze and magnify functions on ordinary cameras and smartphones.

Even though this situation sounds rather complex don’t worry too much about your description when you first write it, because the blog gives visually impaired people the possibility to ask further questions, helping the description to grow and develop. We encourage you to mention colours and perspectives even if people who are blind since birth may have difficulties relating to these concepts.

Describing a Picture in Three Steps

Erich Schmid is an art historian who is completely blind since birth. He is frequently asked how blind people see and imagine their immediate surroundings and the world in general and how sighted people should describe visual impressions to them. Over the years he developed the following model for describing pictures in three steps. It is simply a basic guideline based on his personal experience, highlighting the most important features to be mentioned.

Secondly, a photograph or painting comprises not only what it depicts. Rather it is a medium with its own aesthetics and its own language. Two pictures taken within five seconds of each other at the same place can portray a completely different impression of a single motive.

  1. Details about the picture: Who made it? When, where and why was it made? Is there a background story attached to it? How big and in which format is it? For paintings: What techniques have been used?
  2. Iconographical and iconological description: What is depicted? What is in the middle, at the top, at the bottom, on the left and on the right? From which angle is the picture taken? Are there remarkable compositional features?
  3. What impression does the picture make on the describer? Here personal impressions should not overbalance more objective features. It should be rather easy to determine the atmosphere and sometimes also season and time of day. Finally, the describer can add things that strike her or him as remarkable and noteworthy.

A comment by Katrin Dinges

My situation is completely different: I had some vision until I was between 13 and 15. Since that time I’m only able to see lights and shadows. Thus, I have a limited but relatively good idea about visual impressions. I learn a lot about seeing through descriptions.

The following things are important to me:

  • Is it a picture in portrait or landscape format?
  • What is the general mood or atmosphere in the picture?
  • What is the most prominent object in the picture?
  • What else is there to see?
  • Personally, I would like to have as many details as possible

Please feel free to leave a comment if you have more suggestions. Picture describers too are more than welcome to share their methods and experiences.