Mindful Seeing: The Beauty of Blind Photography, Community, and Soma

Beauty is in the heart of the beholder.

– H. G. Wells

 

When I met my friend and freelance art curator, Kate Martin, in Berlin this past year, we shared an instant connection: we’re both creative people who love art, and work hard at our passions. As I was quizzing her about her interesting job as the founder/director of Contemporary Art Exchange, she casually mentioned a photography practice that still now thrills me to think about – blind photography. Having never before heard about this new way of seeing, I didn’t at first understand it: I thought, in an admittedly very close-minded way, how on earth can a person who can’t see make photographs?

Well, I’ve since found out the incredibly inspiring, multi-layered answer(s) to this simple, naïve question. I am extremely excited to share with you Kate’s thoughts on this fascinating subject, in the hopes that it will open your minds, as it did mine, to the world of possibility that exists within all of us — no matter what our personal challenges are.

The practice of blind photography is proof that beauty truly is in the mind’s eye, or heart, of the beholder.

This photograph might appear on the surface to be just a regular image of the beach, that follows the rule of thirds. But delving deeper, we learn that this seascape is actually the fruits of  trust-based collaboration and a desire to explore the world outside the constraints of personal challenges. Photo courtesy of www.rositamckenzie.net.

K: Can you explain a bit about your work with blind photographers? The exhibition Through the Looking Glass, Dimly featured the work of blind photographers Rosita McKenzie and Andrew Follows.

KM: “It’s really only in the last couple of years that I’ve been working with blind photographers. It all began when I was asked to help Melbourne photographer Andrew Follows organize his first overseas exhibition. I had been working at The Fruitmarket Gallery in Edinburgh as the Education Assistant, where I was involved with planning and delivering contemporary art tours and workshops for a range of people, including our tours for blind or visually impaired people.

It was there that I met Rosita McKenzie, another blind photographer based in Edinburgh. Initially we approached Rosita for advice on how we might make the exhibition more inclusive for audiences with disabilities (Rosita is also a Disability and Equalities Consultant) and we ended up inviting her to be part of the show. It was a great experience – I learned much from both Rosita and Andrew about blind photography, in particular about the varying motivations of the artists involved, the technical skills, and in terms of alternative workshop formats.”

K: Can you explain a bit about the general concept behind blind photography?

KM: “Blind photography is quite complex as a genre or field of contemporary art, mainly because there is no one underlying concept – it really depends on the individual, and this is something I find fascinating about it. As the title suggests, blind photography is photography conducted or performed or carried out by individuals who have some sort of visual impairment  - some of them might be completely blind, some of them might have some sight, some of them might have been visually impaired from birth, others might have acquired visual impairment, etc.

It really depends on the motivation of the artist, their rationale for taking photographs. More often than not, they’re people who have been self-taught or are taking an alternative form of education as opposed to the traditional going to art school.”

K: Having worked with blind photographers, what have you gathered are their main reasons for practicing photography?

KM: “The blind photographers I know, the main reasons they practice photography are because it is a way to document the world around them and to engage in the creative process. Just like any other artist, this desire to create, to produce something, and the fact that what they’re producing is visual is kind of beside the point and makes it yet again more interesting.

The other kind of rationale for taking photographs, for photographers who have partial vision, is that it’s often a way to kind of see the world. So a few of the blind photographers that I know, they’ll take photos of an event, or of their surroundings, or people and then put it into a computer – it’s digital photography. Often a large monitor will be used, or they can zoom into the image to actually discover the colors, the textures, and the details that perhaps maybe they’ve missed in the real experience. And that process is very interesting in terms of the unknown and the unexpected, and there’s this kind of surprise element involved in that, and there’s this kind of reliving the experience through revisiting the image in the details.”

McKenzie uses photography as a way to enhance her relationship with the world. By making images with the help of an assistant and her own determined will, she is re-defining what it means to ‘see’. Photo courtesy of Rosita McKenzie/www.rositamckenzie.net.

K: Can you compare it to any other type of art?

KM: “For me, it has a lot of qualities that are very similar to some conceptual art practices or performance art practices, where it’s not so much about the end result, but perhaps the focus is much more on a documented experience of the artist, whether that’s an environment or something that is happening with them. And it’s the actual process, the challenge of taking the photograph, the challenge of navigating tools that produce visual results, when you don’t have vision – well, physical vision.

These practices often rely on collaboration with other people, so often blind photographers will use assistants if they don’t have access to technology such as voice activated camera technology, which to be honest is barely in existence anyway. Or if they don’t have any sight whatsoever, obviously navigating the camera, making sure you have the right settings adjusted can be incredibly difficult, so often blind photographers will use human beings just to make sure the settings are correct. But it is always the blind photographer who is in control – this is the image I want to take, this is the image I want to achieve, and then that person basically facilitates that for them.

It is a very performative experience. There are things to do with the artist in relationship with their physical environment that I feel are very similar to those in performance art. So, for example, feeling where the sun is on your body in order to achieve a shot that perhaps has a shadow or no shadow. Using your body to work out your distance to your subject is another example.”

K: So, blind photographers use assistants quite differently than other photographers usually would. How important is the relationship between a blind photographer and their assistant?

KM: “It is inherent in that collaborative relationship between the assistants themselves, or the subjects themselves.  One thing that is absolutely paramount in the practice of blind photography that I know is this element of trust and rapport that has to be built up with these assistants, and often with the subjects as well. Because you can imagine, having a blind photographer take a photograph of you, that could really unsettle some people, so there needs to be a lot of trust built up there.

For me, it’s also really fascinating as a curator involved in educational practice, because most blind photographers I know are involved in workshops, whether they’re participants of photography workshops, and that’s their access and entry to that medium, or as workshop leaders themselves, training other people – whether they have vision or not – about alternative ways of making visual work, and alternative ways of using technology to make photographs. And again it comes down to the collaborative nature of the practice, and there’s something really lovely about that – how it’s very much a community involved practice.”

Blind photographer Andrew Follows experiences challenges that photographers with sight wouldn’t encounter, such as restricted access to information made available online. Photo courtesy of Andrew Follows/www.blinkiephotography.com.au.

K: What are some the challenges involved with blind photography?

KM: “A lot of blind photographers I know don’t have access in the same ways to the kinds of networks that other artists do; the visual arts community is exactly that – very visual – and that can often be a barrier to access. For example, so much of our information we receive about funding opportunities, residencies, exhibition calls, professional development programs, education, or even just being able to do research and investigate other artists you might find inspiring – this comes to us in the form of books or the internet, and if you’re a blind photographer, these are really difficult things to access. These visual aids that most artists rely on to gain access to developing their craft are often very visual formats that aren’t accessible to people who have a visual impairment.

And so a lot of blind photographers who I know often rely on each other for support – they’ll form networks, small networks, and they’ll communicate mostly by word of mouth, or old fashioned telephone. Most of them have email, but then they rely on their screen readers to read those emails, or they need it to be in a particular format so that they can read it, or they need to have the skills to know how to zoom in on things or increase font sizes. What may seem very basic for you and me might be quite complicated for someone who has a sensory deprivation.”

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder

The work of these blind photographers reminds me that beauty has much more to do with deeper context  than it does with a superficial, stereotypical status quo. This can also apply to other areas of creative expression, including contemporary art, products, and fashion. The latter has always been an industry ripe with a desire to encourage people to strive for homogeneous appearance. While I’ve spoken previously of my disdain for the fashion industry’s unhealthy attitude toward women, labels like Igigi are renewing my faith in this field. This plus-sized designer fashion label is not only creating beautiful clothing in larger sizes (12-32), but they’re devoted to making a change in the way we see beauty, much like blind photographers’ endeavors to encourage new ways of seeing.

 

Although beauty may be in the eye of the beholder, the feeling of being beautiful exists solely in the mind of the beheld.

– Martha Beck

 

Change starts at home, in small communities

Despite mainstream media’s insistence on portraying a one-size-fits-all, cardboard-cutout approach to beauty and art, brands like Igigi and Soma, and practices like blind photography, show us that we can shift this by starting small and creating like-minded communities. By gathering together even just a few friends who share values about beauty, or about the environment, or art, we can begin to have change-making, connecting conversations about issues that matter to us. There will always be people who disagree with our approach or choices, and that’s okay!

Surrounding ourselves with people who share similar visions for the future creates a supportive platform from which to take positive action. Photographer McKenzie found like-minded individuals within her blind photography community, and curator Kate Martin, to name but a few. Fashion-lovers can seek others who share their passion for smart clothing that meets their body’s needs through labels like Igigi, and online communities; while those of us who care deeply about the environment, sustainable design, and sleek appearance can reach out to products like the Soma water filter, where they can find a global community of like-minded people who are doing their part to help the world’s water crisis.

Finding people with shared values

Finding a community with whom we share values can be extremely helpful when we’re trying to align our values with our actions, and to live fully with integrity. I am fortunate to have found a community like this for myself in Chiang Mai, Thailand, where my friends are constantly supporting me to live my best life: from using tupperware for restaurant take-away, drinking lots of water, and going on nature hikes, to reaching for my dreams. I find great inspiration in McKenzie and other blind photographers who demonstrate that no matter what our personal challenges are, we can always choose to use them to enhance our lives: by using their visual impairment to challenge the status quo, and connect with others, we all experience the power of the human spirit and its creative capacity.

Are there any personal challenges that you’ve experienced, or are experiencing, that you can re-envision to enhance your connection with the world? Whether it’s starting a blog, hosting a small group gathering, creating an art movement, or making a conscious choice as a consumer, there are endless possibilities to expand the way we see our incredible universe.