This article is roughly based on a German post by Katrin, reflecting on her participation in our photography workshop in May 2014 and her experiences as a blind photographer in general.
Since my first project in 2012 photography is a bridge between seeing and not seeing to me. I realized that touching sculptures or roses in a park creates some kind of visual image in my mind. Reading the descriptions in our blog brings back past memories; or I think I’m actually able to see the described things in front of my inner eye. Until my teenage years I was still able to see contrasts and shapes, so looking at pictures meant something to me. During my first project it was hard to realize that I now could neither see what was in the focus of the camera nor the captured image. Fortunately, I overcame this pain and continued taking pictures. Thus, I regained access to visual memories I believed to have forgotten a long time ago.
To my own amazement I started to notice my remaining vision again a few months ago. It is really not a lot, merely light and darkness and some extremely blurred shadows. But sometimes it even distracts my concentration or orientation. Once it made me loose the rhythm while dancing tango. Another time I danced into the wrong direction, because I saw something white. As I later discovered it was not a floodlight as I thought but the white wall.
Talking about visual things not only helped me to remember, it also made it easier to explain to others what and how I see. Sometimes I’m not sure where the boundaries between my own sensual perception and the impressions I get from other people’s descriptions are. Emotionally this experience is enriching and confusing at the same time an I would like to investigate this connection further.
A while ago I recommended our German blog to a Russian friend, who is also blind. Her parents, unable to read the German descriptions, described my pictures to her and remarked they looked as if a sighted person had taken them. Actually this is a huge compliment, but I’m not sure how I feel about this, because sighted people helped me to take the photos and I don’t necessarily want to create pictures similar to those sighted people take.
Maybe I should search for some of my first pictures to scan and upload them here. They were taken with an analogue camera and in a more random fashion with less sighted help. It would be interesting to compare them with more recent digital pictures. However, I got used to the help which makes it easier to select motives and depict exactly what I want to depict. Besides, there were too many bad pictures among the analogue ones.
Can blind people read hands?
In my latest project I focus on hands – hands in different positions, engaged in various actions. As a blind person someone’s hands are often the only part of a person I touch. In contrast to that most photographers focus on faces, because they convey more emotions. I also put things I regard as beautiful into hands, to create a different sensual impression. I love touching artful objects or the art of nature – a delicate flower or the cracked bark of a massive old tree.
Hands can tell me as much about a person as their faces. I rarely touch the latter and I would never ask to do so, because touching someone’s face is a rather intimate gesture, especially if you don’t know a person vary well. I suppose most people wouldn’t refuse this request, but it has to come naturally and spontaneously, otherwise it becomes embarrassing to both partners. If a friend offers me to touch her or his face, I appreciate it as an invaluable proof of trust. For example in my new dancing group it is part of our improvised dancing to tuch each other, including our faces. Some of the other dancers also told me that they experienced it as something special and unique. For sighted people the first thing they see of each other are the faces, not the hands. One dancer said she didn’t let me feel her face only to do me a favour, but also because she wanted to know what the sensation would be like.
A friend of mine once jokingly called me a hand reader. Of course I cannot read the future in people’s hands, but I think due to my intensively trained sense of touch I gather from them more information than most sighted people do. It is a pity that smells can neither be adequately described nor captured in a picture to show them to others. Likewise sighted people sometimes find it difficult to explain visual experiences to me, which I have never seen myself. Occasionally these impressions are too abstract and I find no approach to them.
Looking closer and closer
On the other hand my detailed questions seam to change the way the narrators look at things themselves. Often narrators tell me they wouldn’t have noticed certain details, if I wouldn’t have asked specific questions. Writing visual impressions down as a coherent text brings more details to light than just glancing casually at a picture. For example in a photo of a tram one could look through the doors and windows and see people walking behind the tram on the other side of the street. They were blurred but nevertheless clearly visible. My describer said she wouldn’t have noticed this without describing the scene to me. On the other hand, a lady who I regularly meet to read texts and talk, told me since she learns more about the way I perceive things she trys to focus more on her sense of touch. Thus completely different ways of perception complement each other and fuse into an universal perception of sensory impressions. This process of mutual approximation and change of perspective in photography workshops, dancing groups or other projects is a very enriching experience to me.