We talked to Berlin-based producer Frank Amann about how his newly released documentary film “Shot in the Dark” developed out of coincidental meetings with blind and visually impaired photographers and his fascination with their works. The result is an intimate portrait of three remarkable artists. The following text is translated from German and based on a telephone conversation and my research, therefore most of Frank’s answers are rephrased.
What inspired you to make a film about blind photographers?
“Shot in the Dark” is my first work as a director, I’m first and foremost a camera man. About six years ago I worked on the Spanish Basque Film “Camera Obscura”. The film is a coming of age story about a blind girl, who is overly protected by her parents and tries to find her place in a very visual teenage world. I wanted to portrayal her point of view through filming techniques and started asking myself, how this girl experiences her surroundings.
I did some research and found the blind photographer Evgen Bavcar. But his texts are concerned with the philosophical rather than the visual aspect of blind photography. Subsequently, I came across the catalogue to the exhibition “Sight Unseen”, featuring blind photographers from several countries. The exhibition is touring museums around the world for ten years now and some of the pictures captivated me long after I went to see the exhibition live.
While I was working for a different project in the USA, I spontaneously decided to call two of the photographers featured in “Sight Unseen”, Bruce Hall and Pete Eckert and asked them to meet up. At the time I didn’t have an idea for the film yet. I was just curious and wanted to meet the photographers, who made these fascinating pictures. What was supposed to be a quick chat turned into a long conversation. We discovered that our views on photography and art were very similar. However, it was a long journey from the idea to the finished feature film about Pete Eckert, Bruce Hall and Sonia Soberats.
What was important to you while making the film?
I didn’t want to make a film about but with blind photographers. I saw the short HBO film “Dark Light: The Art of blind Photography” also featuring Bruce and Pete. It tries to explain with didactical and analytical methods how blind photographers work. Sighted Photographers were asked to speculate how it works and the whole thing reminded me of explorers digging in an anthill.
My film is more visual and observing. It follows the photographers doing their work and lets them and their families and friends talk. I want the audience to form their own opinions on what they see and hear without being guided and influenced by my commentary. Although sight loss and family stories influence the photographers’ choice of motives, the film’s main focus is on the artists themselves and their works.
Bruce for example does mainly underwater photography and portraits of his autistic twin sons. Together with his wife he published the book “Immersed: Our Experience with Autism”. Because he has difficulties seeing his sons’ facial expressions, looking at magnified pictures of them enables him to get to know them on a different level. The mainly non-verbal interaction with his children is important, but not the main focus of the film sequences about Bruce. Since his early childhood he uses magnifiers and nowadays large screens to piece together what he sees. He says himself he sees twice: First an impression or shape in front of the camera and later more details in the finished picture.
I also wanted the protagonists themselves to be able to enjoy the finished film. That’s why we offer audio description with the smart phone app GRETA. Additionally, I worked with sound effects and incorporated different layers of sounds. In cinema screenings the sound will move between several loudspeakers, creating an almost three-dimensional soundscape.
What is it that fascinates you about the works of these blind photographers and what do you think differentiates them from sighted photographers?
Nowadays we’re constantly flooded by pictures. To gain our attention for more than a few seconds and to stay in our mind afterwards, a picture has to show something special or have an unusual perspective or technique. With regards to that blind photographers may have an advantage, because they compare pictures less. Someone who sees nothing or very little loses him or herself less in details, thus light and shadow contrasts as well as abstract forms become more pronounced. Even I sometimes narrow my eyes to focus on the bigger picture as a whole. That however doesn’t mean all photographs taken by blind people are the same, on the contrary their motives and techniques vary as much as their remaining sight and their interests.
Do blind photographers work differently than sighted ones?
Every artist – sighted or not- has his or her own working methods. The work of most blind photographers is conceptual. While sighted people often spot something worth capturing by chance, their blind counterparts first develop the picture composition in front of their inner eye and subsequently try to assemble it.
Pete was a carpenter as well as an arts and architecture student, before he gradually lost his vision due to a genetic condition. While going blind he also took up business studies. He switched from sculpturing to woodcutting and eventually took up photography. Even today he still works with an analogue camera because it gives him more independence. Pete touches the mechanics of the camera and uses sticky marking points to differentiate the settings. Apart from getting help to select the photographs for large format prints, he works without sighted people. For Pete only a picture composed and taken without sighted help is an authentic photograph depicting the world of the blind. Nevertheless, feedback from viewers is important to him, since no artist can stay motivated without encouragement.
As a young Venezuelan immigrant mother, Sonia lost her two children to cancer and became blind within a short space of time. Although she hadn’t done photography previously she joined a group of blind and visually impaired photographers in New York and found new fulfilment in light painting. Light painting takes place in a completely dark room where the depicted person or object is illuminated with different flashlights, which give the finished picture an almost ghostlike quality. Sonia takes her inspirations from experiences, events, smells and touchable textures. Her models are often family members and close friends, whom she talks to during the photo shoot. To put her ideas into practice Sonia has a sighted assistant. The concepts are hers, the assistant provides only technical help.
The documentary was shot in English and will hopefully be screened in other countries soon.