Seeing Beyond Sight Photographs by Blind Teenagers
A photographer's worst nightmare is loss of sight. A profession that relies on vision would, in theory, be severely crippled by blindness, and it is with this deep-rooted fear in mind that photographer Tony Deifell approached Governor Morehead School for the Blind in Raleigh, N.C., in 1992 to start an after-school photography club.
"The project was a leap in the dark for me, and the contradictory notion was a good enough reason to jump in," Deifell writes in the introduction. "Anytime there's an obvious way to do something, that's reason enough for me to try a different way."
Deifell spent almost a year convincing the school he was serious before he started, and his group consisted of three students; one dropped out a week after the club began. After time, however, 36 students were a regular part of the club, using black-and-white film and point-and-shoot cameras to document family, friends, joys, and fears. Of the 36 students one-third were totally blind; the remaining students had various other visual impairments.
Without vision, the students are less hindered to make photographs, working with what Deifell and three other instructors classify as "low vision," "light perception," and "no vision." For example, 19-year-old John V. captures sea gulls in flight while trying to photograph a shrimp boat. Although his teachers' commentary is borderline condescending, it's hard to argue that his photograph is far from stupendous.
Tonal range, selective focusing, shape, and form are not lost on the students, whose instructor described their photographs to them. The few blurred images indicate a hazy and familiar feeling of moving air, as seen in Wendy's image of a fan and Tameka's photograph of a large tree trunk. The tree consumes the photograph, illustrating soft but strong bark.
The photographs serve the students better than they do Deifell, who found new artistic vision for himself in the process. Students use cameras to help them understand their surroundings and to illustrate their lives to family and friends; John V. excessively photographs his girlfriend Wendy, like any teenager, to share the pictures with his family, who had never met her. Many students create family albums.
The images truly succeed in their simple documentation. With ease, the students share their lives in candid photographs that show them as average teenagers. Moreover, the simplistic images of the everyday bring new meaning. Leuwynda's photograph of a sidewalk illustrates her frustrations from struggling with a stuck cane, while Merlett's photograph of a leaf blower explains his fears; buildings bounced the sound the equipment made, so Merlett could never tell from where the sound was coming. As a result, the students reveal the unknown in the familiar world while tackling a medium once thought beyond their abilities to illustrate their lives clearly.