I´m working for a Berlin-based project called Photo Narrations – Pictures for the Blind and Sighted. We organise photography workshops for people with vision impairments. The idea developed when photographer Karsten Hein was taking photos of people with sight loss for one of his exhibitions. Talking to his models,he realised that especially those who used to have more sight were interested in photography but had given it up or didn’t feel comfortable enough to join a photography club. So Karsten started a specific photography group.
How does blind photography work?
It is all about teamwork. The vision impaired photographer teams up with one or two sighted volunteers. The assistants help with selecting motives, framing the shot and picking the best pictures. At the end of each session, all teams meat up to talk about each others pictures and to describe them. Pictures and descriptions are subsequently gathered in an online exhibition on our German blog, where readers can ask more detailed questions.
To promote the international blind photography community, we launched our English blog www.photonarrations.wordpress.com giving blind photographers worldwide a platform to showcase their work and share their experiences.
Workshop in Dublin
The two-day introduction to digital photography and light painting held at the NCBI this July was our first workshop outside Germany and exceeded our expectations in every way. I was amazed how quickly the course was booked out and even more astonished about the number of volunteers who were intrigued by the idea and gave up their weekend to assist us. The NCBI staff too was very enthusiastic and allowed us to use their training centre.
After a brief introduction we split into groups. Some of us took their smartphones and digital cameras and went for a photo walk along the canal. It was a great way to explore the surroundings. The volunteers looked out for interesting visual landmarks like the graveyard or the red brigg houses on the other side of the canal many of us wouldn’t have noticed before. The statue of Brendan Behan was a great model, because he didn’t move and everyone could touch him to get a good angle for their photographs.
The second day consisted exclusively of light painting. Light painting is done in a completely dark room with digital cameras set to long exposure times. Only what is eluminated with torches and other light sources will be visible in the photograph. If the exposure time is long enough one can even switch off the lights, move and reappear somewhere else in the picture. The background is mostly dark and people or objects appear to be illuminated from the inside. It is a bit like painting a portrait. The model has to sit really still, otherwise the picture will be blurry, which creates a ghostly effect that can look interesting too. Additionally, the photographer can use the flash lamp to draw extra lines into the photo. A person can have wings or a halo for example.
We had great fun experimenting with different techniques, trying out what would happen if somebody swung a cane or moved in a circle while the picture was taken. Some groups produced ghostly images, while others used props to tell stories. One team spent hours writing the words breaking limits with lights in Braille and letters. Personally, I learned a lot about the different camera settings and how changing them affects the picture.
The atmosphere was fantastic and the two days flew by. The volunteers were mainly members of Dublin Camera Club and Off Shoot Photography Society. One professional photographer even came from Limerick. It was an honour to have all these experienced photographers at our workshop. The event would not have been such a success without their help. Most of the volunteers had never worked with someone with vision impairment before, but they all were incredibly friendly and helpful. Blind photography is a great way to facilitate dialogue between sighted and vision impaired people. One lady said, she used to have problems with her sight and although the thought of it decreasing further is still scary, at least she now has a better understanding of how people with vision impairments live and knows that she could still be a photographer.
We are thrilled with the positive feedback from the participants. All of them had a different level of sight and varying experiences with photography. Some used to take photographs before losing their sight while others were just curious and wanted to be able to take pictures for social media platforms and blogs. The enthusiasm for trying out something new like light painting was contagious. Photography can also be a powerful tool for change. One participant for example takes photos of obstacles on footpaths to raise awareness for the challenges he faces in everyday life. Encouraged by the positive experience at our workshop, he will attend a photography meet-up organised by Dublin Camera Club next week. In a time increasingly reliant on images, we want to enable people with vision impairments to participate in this visual culture and to join mainstream clubs and societies.
It was suggested to organise a number of photography workshops throughout the year in different locations. There are so many scenic places in Ireland and we would love to capture some of them.
This post was written for the NCBI InSight Magazine.