It’s a seemingly impossible concept: people who can’t see, becoming photographers. But it’s far more common than you may think. There are now a number of accomplished and well-respected blind photographers popping up in the world of fine art, and a significant following is growing as visually-impaired individuals defy their ailments.
Flickr alone has a group for blind photographers of over 330 members in the US. Their pool of group photographs contributed by members now numbers over 10,000. New York City’s Seeing With Photography Collective is another guild of sightless photographers comprised of 27 professionals.
But why is photography for the blind such a prominent phenomenon? I’ve examined the stories and work of three blind shutterbugs to find the motivation behind their admirable yet admittedly-strange pursuits.
Portrait of Sonia Soberats by Steven Erra
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A well-known member of the aforementioned Seeing With Photography Collective, Soberats lost her eyesight amid several traumatic life experiences. Her only son and daughter passed away within several years of one another, victims of Hodgkin’s Disease and Ovarian Cancer. Unlike many other impaired photographers, she did not become a photographer until after her blindness was fully realized.
Image courtesy of Sonia Soberats
Her haunting, whimsical abstractions are often the focus of momentous, transformative happenings. Miss Soberats’ creations seem to be evocations of her emotionally taxing journey, and ultimately a powerful form of chaotic albeit beautiful expression.
She executes her craft in-studio, with a great deal of care and planning going into each photograph. An assistant helps to frame the subject as described by Soberats, and from there she examines her models with meticulous hands and thorough questioning.
One exposure can last as long as a half-hour at a time, as the photographer coats the space with carefully-placed light. She uses a variety of illumination, from string lights to flashlights and open flame. Despite the taxing physical demands associated with the 77-year-old’s dynamic light painting techniques, she fully immerses herself in the art.
Here’s a closer look at Soberats and her process:
But many may wonder why a visually-impaired individual would choose to pursue photography. Soberats described her initial experience of failing vision as a concern on the backburner, as she was preoccupied with the untimely suffering of her two children. Following their deaths, she chose photography as a means of curbing her sadness and empowering her personal expression.
The results of her undertakings are enthralling works of art. Soberats’ photographs are masterfully crafted, dreamlike renderings that display a level of quality and creativity that we don’t see from many eye-enabled photographers.
Images courtesy of Sonia Soberats
Having been through his fair share of hardships, Weston is a blind photographer with a renewed and raw outlook. He has endured a 30-year-long battle with HIV, which left him with nothing more than the most basic sensations of light and form in only his right eye. Weston also fought through intestinal cancer and several extreme bouts of pneumonia.
Self portrait by Kurt Weston
Formerly a fashion photographer, Kurt Weston left behind his initial profession in 1993 as his vision began to worsen. However, he was determined to continue in the field of photography and achieved his Masters in Fine Arts.
Kurt Weston’s work has revolved around his own deterioration and successive rise. Part of his focus is an emulation of his own vision, reconstructing the tendril-like aberrations that obscure his remaining sight.
Image courtesy of Kurt Weston
Another substantial aspect of his work deals with the inherent frailty of the human body. Weston’s own degeneration as a result of full-blown AIDS has played a potent role in many of his photographs.
Image courtesy of Kurt Weston
Many of his portraiture pieces are created using a digital scanner. Weston places his subjects (himself included) in front of the scanning table, often incorporating a variety of translucent and otherwise pertinent objects to illustrate his vision. His scanner images create an odd distortion of light and focus, putting a vivid emphasis on the immediate foreground while diminishing the light and sharpness of anything more than a few centimeters past the plate.
He often uses foaming liquids and reflective materials to distort the resulting picture and give the viewer a representation of “blind vision”, also the name of one of his series. Like Sonia Soberats, Weston credits his work as an extension of his self-expression. He is a warrior and a survivor: his fervent efforts and passionate dedication to the art have pulled him through his trying past and close scrapes with death.
Pete Eckert has been legally blind since 1983, and has now been totally blind for over 7 years. As his vision began to degrade, Eckert described his two biggest fears as being “how to make money and how to protect myself.” He went on to earn a Master’s Degree and become a Black Belt martial artist. Eckert’s personality exudes curiosity and his achievements have left him as an extremely self-sufficient individual.
Portrait of Pete Eckert courtesy of ideastap.com
Eckert’s work spans a variety of photographic styles and themes. Many of his images are made in-studio through light painting, featuring everything from Playboy models to electrified, abstracted figures.
Images courtesy of Pete Eckert
But a large part of Eckert’s craft holds a keen focus on activism and awareness. Straying from the studio environment, he takes to the streets with his canine companion to capture candid situations. One series displayed on his website is an exposé from what looks to be a personal experience of navigating bus stops as a blind person, and the inept nature of the system as an aid to the handicapped.
Another awareness-focused project by Eckert culminated after he and his dog were struck by a car one day when passing through an intersection. Eckert has created a series of composite images, placing his light phantoms over photos of crosswalks to illustrate his message.
Image courtesy of Pete Eckert
Eckert describes himself as a visually-oriented person, revealing that he envisions a scene based on the environmental sound that surrounds him.
“If you think of a rock in a river, the water leaves an eddy behind it. Walking down the street, I can hear when there are parking meters because they leave a sound shadow. I figured it out by hearing how the sound changed, going up and feeling with my hands, telling myself ‘that’s what a parking meter sounds like,’” he said in an interview with ideastap.com.
A video by Christian Schneider profiles Pete Eckert and one of his exhibitions with Artists Wanted.
So while the idea of a blind photographer may seem folly at first glance, there are many visually-impaired, award-winning artists who have emerged in the past few decades. If you’ve heard of other inspiring blind photographers and their work, please share them with us in the comments!