Photographing Legally Blind Individuals

Photographer at Work. Pano. B&W rendering. ©Alina Oswald.

Have you ever wondered how photographers direct and pose people who are legally blind?

I ask, because when our subjects have very limited (if at all) eyesight, they can’t really look where we tell them to look, without a bit of additional help. So, how do we, photographers, communicate with these subjects? How do we guide them in order to best express their personalities?

Let me start with a brief personal experience interacting with legally blind individuals.

My first up close and personal encounter with a legally blind (almost completely blind) individual happened years ago when I was teaching high school math. I had a student who had very little eyesight. He was a tall and skinny guy, kinda shy, but once you got to connect with him, he could really chat. And he knew his way through the entire school building. We were meeting for after-school studies, while I was trying to teach him geometry of all things math. Since his father was a culinary chef, I tried to use food analogies, for example, pizza, when explaining the concept of circles, angles, and whatnot. Long story short, he became quite good at geometry, and, most importantly, started to like it, too.

Journeys Through Darkness: A Biography
Journeys Through Darkness: A Biography. Photography by Kurt Weston.

Years later, I met award-winning, legally blind photographer Kurt Weston. I wrote about his story in A&U Magazine, (a couple of times) and wrote a book about him and his work. We became friends and he became my first mentor in photography.

Weston is the subject of my August cover story published in A&U: Art & Understanding Magazine.

Kurt Weston’s Blind Vision series of self-portraits capture the physical and emotional impact that visual loss can have on an individual. 

In order to represent his visual disturbance—which he described as “pieces of cotton stuck in my eye, floating every time I move my eye”—he sprayed a glass with foaming glass cleaner and took a self-portrait sitting behind it.  “You see my hand pushing away the foam, which is what I would love to do,” he explains, “I would like to be able to wipe away all that cotton that keeps floating in front of my eye and get a clear view of what I want to see out in the world.”          

Weston believes that black-and-white offers his art a concentration of expression.  And he likes that intensity, in particular in his portraits.  He uses regular film and prints his images on silver gelatin paper so that they can last forever.  He wants future generations to be able to look at this work and say, “This was happening at this time in history and this is the impact it left on people whose lives it touched, this pandemic.”

Over the years, I’ve got to photograph some amazing, individuals, artists, and friends who are also legally blind or have limited eyesight.

For example, several years ago, thanks to my long-time friend, award-winning author T.J. Banks, I got the chance to photograph a legally blind, remarkable artist featured in T.J. Banks‘ book, Sketch People

That brings me back to my initial question: How would we photograph a blind or visually impaired person?

The challenge may start with the realization that, as photographers, we can’t really say: “look at me” or something of that sort, because the subject, doesn’t really see us.

For this particular photo shoot, Tammy (T.J. Banks) drove me around her neighborhood and introduced me to my model, Mark. We didn’t have much time to photograph, since he was one of the several sketch people I was to photograph that day.

We met Mark and his wife in front of a jewelry store. While Tammy disappeared inside the store with Mark’s wife, I got to chat a little bit with him and went to work.

 
Mark was funny and could crack a joke. Not only he was–or at least appeared to be–very much at ease in front of my lens, but he was putting me at ease, too.
 

NOTE: read more about Mark Remaly in “A Hands-On Philosopher: Mark Remaly,” by award-winning author T.J. Banks. The story, an excerpt from Bank’s Sketch People: Stories Along the Way, was published in the August issue of A&U: Art & Understanding Magazine.

As a side note, quite recently, Perkins School for the Blind became interested in using Mark’s portrait for one of their articles.
 

In order to photograph Mark, I used the storefront as backdrop. Mark is a fantastic storyteller. And as he was sharing his artist story, his story started to appear on his face, captured in his facial expressions. So, I tried to capture those facial expressions through my lens, while listening to his fascinating story.

I decided I didn’t want his blindness to become the main character in the visual story I was trying to tell. After all, Mark, the artist, was the main character. So, I asked him to look up at the sky, with his eyes slightly open. He seemed to like that idea and added a smile. He appeared as if he was slightly squinting against the sun, deep in thoughts. I took the shot.

Also, I tried to achieve certain looks, by asking him  to turn left or right, look up or down or to turn his head towards my voice. [A side-note here: remember that as photographers we see the mirror image of our subjects. So, direct them the right way–our left is their right and the other way around. Try not to confuse them!]

 

The experience was an enlightening one for me. When Tammy and Mark’s wife finally emerged from the store, I took another picture of the couple, lovingly smiling at each other.

Visual artist Kelly B. Darr. Photo by Alina Oswald.
Visual artist Kelly B. Darr. Lensbaby Portrait by Alina Oswald.

While visiting an artist studio in the NYC area, I ran into a visual artist who was presenting her beautiful art pieces while rollerskating with them around her studio space. Her name is Kelly B. Darr . I was hooked right away. I couldn’t take my eyes off the artwork or the beautiful, fairy-like artist. Nowadays, I own a few of her art pieces.

We became friends. Years ago, I also interviewed Kelly B. Darr and got to learn everything about colors and A Universe of Colors one (in particular Kelly B. Darr) can create.

 

Kelly is a phenomenal artist. Her story is an artist’s against-all-odds kind of story. Since childhood, she’s had eyesight only in one eye. Now, she finally has the opportunity to gain eyesight in the other eye. For that, Kelly has to go through several surgeries. To find out more about how one regains eyesight and the many surgeries and challenges they have to go through, from darkness to light, check out the link posted here.

 
Getting to work with visually impaired artists has really opened my eyes to an amazing image of the world painted in black and white, as well as color, by stories about strength, perseverance, and also hope.
 
 
Thank you and thanks for stopping by!

1 Comment

  1. Reblogged this on ALINA OSWALD and commented:

    Since I’ve recently interviewed award-winning, legally blind photographer Kurt Weston https://aumag.org/2022/08/27/kurt-weston-cover-story/ for the August 2022 cover story of A&U Magazine, today, I thought to revisit a blog post about photographing, posing and directing legally-blind individuals (subjects) during a photo shoot.

    I hope you will join me in revisiting this aspect of photography and much more.
    Alina Oswald

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.