Tuesday, February 28, 2012

How to Photograph the Blind or Visually Impaired

Tips on How to Photograph Blind or Visually Impaired Individuals... I had the fantastic opportunity to do just that for T.J. Banks' book, Sketch People and learned a lesson in life from a wonderful and inspiring person

Color Headshot. Photo by Alina Oswald

In this blog I’ve written quite extensively about photographing blindness or the world seen through the eyes of a person who cannot see anymore. Kurt Weston, award-winning photographer left legally blind by AIDS-related retinitis, has made it his mission not to shy away from his disability but rather use it as a source of inspiration for his work—hence his Blind Vision series of self-portraits. To find out more about the visual artist’s journeys through AIDS and related blindness, check out Journeys Through Darkness, a biography that tells the story of AIDS through the story of Kurt Weston.

But how would one photograph a blind person? The challenge may start with a very simple “look at me" or something of that sort on the photographer’s side. I had the chance to give it a try while photographing a few of T.J. Banks’ Sketch People for inside and cover images of her latest book, Sketch People based by the blog with the same name.

Sometime last summer I loaded the car with photo and lighting gear, and drove to Connecticut for the day. Once there, Tammy became my guide. She drove me around and introduced me to everybody. Everybody! That’s because she knows pretty much everybody in the area and everybody knows her, the author of some of my favorite books, including Souleiado, Houdini, Catsong, A Time for Shadows, Derv & Co, and now Sketch People.

Headshot Sketch. Copyright 2011 by Alina Oswald
Tammy parked in front of a small jewelry store--small, but full of treasures... including a… live one, a huge furry white cat, Alex, the size of a mid-size dog. We stepped inside and Tammy made the introductions—with the owner of the store (the human) and the cat—I swear the Sketch People author can speak cat, if there's such a language.

Not long after that we were back outside, greeting the couple we’d been waiting for. Once introductions were made, Tammy disappeared back in the store together with Mark’s wife, leaving me with my model outside.

Mark is an inspiring individual whose story had made it into Tammy’s blog and book. Oh, and did I mention that he’s legally blind. So, how was I to photograph him?

The day was pleasant and quiet, other than the cars driving up and down the nearby road. The two of us found ourselves kinda squeezed in between two cars parked in front of the store and the storefront. Mark set on a small bench, with the store window behind him.

Sketch People. Cover design by Alina Oswald
We started to chat, to get to know each other better, in the little time we had available for the photo shoot. It didn't take us long to start sharing life stories. Along the way, I found out that Mark’s a fascinating storyteller. I could have stayed there for ages, camera in hand, listening to him. And I could only wonder how a person who knew he was going to lose most of his eyesight—and did—could be so at peace with his fate, trying to share that peacefulness with those around him…

Eventually, it was time for me to get to work. I realized I couldn't tell him to look at me, yet he would turn his head towards my voice, every time I would say something. And so I used my voice to hopefully give him a hint of where I was sitting (on my knee, trying to figure out how best to use the window front as backdrop).

B&W Headshot of Legally-Blind Man. Photo by Alina Oswald
I started taking a few pictures, testing. While I couldn’t tell him to look at me or at the cars around me, I could tell him to look up, to the right, etc. In other words, I used directions.

When that wasn’t quite enough, I pushed further. While I knew a bit about his story—had done my homework—I asked him to share more of it, to get a better idea of the best pose for the book. He’s a thinker, a wise, gentle (and funny) guy with the power to wash away all your worries. So, we tried to reflect that in pictures.

From the beginning of the photo-shoot, Mark figured out that it was a photo-game we were playing. So, he played his part exceptionally, all that while trying not to crack up and to keep his smile from taking over his face.  At one point, he even put his palms together, as if in a prayer, his eyes and head tilted towards the sky.

B&W Headshot. Photo by Alina Oswald
I decided I didn’t want his blindness to become the main character of the story, because Mark was the main character—the kindred person that he’s and the wonderful soul inside of him. Therefore photographing him looking straight into the camera, his eyes closed and smiling didn’t quite work. But, once he looked up to the sky, with a hint of a smile on his face, he seemed as if he was slightly squinting against the sun. And that worked much better.

So, chatting a lot and constantly giving (or hoping to give) him a feeling of where I was and telling him what I wanted to achieve from (and with) the images, we had lots of fun.  I used plenty of directions like up/down, right/left, front/back. [The photographer has to work as if in a mirror: left/right is the model’s left/right, not the photographer’s]

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

We said our good-byes and I told Tammy everything about the experience. And then Tammy drove me to a cozy lunch place where we treated ourselves to some of the best ever wraps. Yum!


  1. Wonderful work, Alex -- both the writing and the photos of Mark. I loved getting your perspective on this, especially as I was inside the store at the time and missed a lot of the ins and outs of this shoot.

  2. Thanks Tammy! Indeed, Sketch People is proof that one doesn't have to have a recognizable name to make a change in the world, a change for the better. On my part, it has been a transforming experience. Mark is one inspiring individual. I have to confess, I was a little worried and nervous about the photo-shoot, but he has this talent to make it all... better, for everybody around him. If he had as much fun as I did, then all is well with the world.

    Thanks again!!!