Photography for the Blind

When I was just a young art student, I looked through a catalog of photography seminars and found something astonishing, a class called “Photography for the Blind.” I never heard anything so outrageous, how could blind people do photography? So I read about the class, and it described an idea so radical that I’ve never forgotten it.

Of course someone who is totally blind cannot see or take photos. But there are far more people who are partially blind rather than completely sightless. Nowadays we call this “low vision” or “vision impairment,” but this covers a wide variety of vision defects. Many people with low vision cannot see objects more distant than a few inches, or only see objects obliquely with their peripheral vision, but these people can see photographs if they view them under the right conditions.

I was particularly struck by the story of one student. She had could not see distant objects, but she could read books if she held them about an inch from her eyes. The school gave her a point-and-shoot Instamatic camera, and taught her how to aim the camera without using the viewfinder. The school processed the film and made extremely enlarged prints. She produced a lot of crooked, badly cropped photos, but overall, they weren’t too bad for someone who couldn’t see what she was doing. But the whole point of the class wasn’t to make fine art for the general public, it was intended to make personal artworks just for the student’s own personal enjoyment. And this woman described her feelings when she saw photographs of her friends’ faces, allowing her for the first time to see what they looked like. Special photographic techniques are often used to capture images of things no human eyes could see, but I never imagined photography could allow the blind to clearly see the world around them for the first time.