[AI] TOI Article: Shoot without sight

Roopakshi Pathania r_akshi_tgk at yahoo.com
Wed Aug 25 11:28:54 EDT 2010

The local students of Blind With Camera Project were merited in reverse when at an exhibition of their photographs at the NCPA in 2007, an ageing individual declared indignantly that those pictures could not have been taken by the visually impaired: they must have been shot by people with sight, and were being palmed off as blind art. In his defence, at his age it's probably easier to believe a technological miracle than a social one. 

When the paradoxical idea of photography by the blind took wing about a decade ago in foreign terrain, it was an eye-opener for both the sighted and those with compromised vision because it reconciled opposites—blindness with a visual medium. Over numerous projects from Israel to New York, France and India, blind photography has become a guerrilla movement that knocks back the picket fences of popular art and subverts known idioms of beauty and creativity. It sends one back to the alphabet of understanding with questions like What is Sight? Perception? Vision? And it concurrently holds out a socio-culturo-politico platform from which to canvass for matters of social integration and equal opportunity. 

In India, the aperture opened in 2006 when Partho Bhowmik, a sighted amateur photographer, started teaching the blind to photograph. He had been moved by images of Evgen Bavcar, a blind Parisian photographer, and subsequently invested two years in the research of blindness and visual art. At the time, coaxing blind students to his workshop was like convincing the old man at NCPA about the legitimacy of the art. Yet, he managed one student. Today, he has an alumni strength of 80. "We exhibited at six major national art galleries; five national social conferences; had over 20,000 sighted people view the work; and had many blind visitors visit," says Bhowmik, on his way to Goa to mount an exhibition of the art that emerged out of an in situ workshop for the blind there. This November, he will pitch tent in Liverpool with three students at the International Disability Arts Festival. 

The accessibility of photography, via raised images, Braille notes, large prints, visual aids and audio tours makes viewing possible for the visually challenged. Spurred by the huge interest in blind photography in India, Bhowmik opened a free virtual school this month (blindwithcameraschool.org) where students of photography have access to linear tutorials, shared images and discussion boards. This project is under the awning of Bhowmik's Beyond Sight Foundation. 

The site explains how a camera works; how to acquaint with it through touch, and the physics of making a picture. The tutorials are conveniently categorised by the object of photography like landscapes or portraits, for example. Lesson One in portraiture reads 'Come close to the person; handshake with him and put your hand on his shoulder. This will give you an idea about the height of the person in relation to your height.' Simplified instructions such as these are braced by referential links to videos, audios and images by legendary blind photographers. Now, says Bhowmik, the LCD screens of digital cameras have hugely helped those with low vision take pictures—by bringing the screen close to their eye, they have a better idea of what they are clicking unlike film cameras where the view is funnelled by the viewfinder." 

Bhowmik's students are given a technical tour of the camera through analogies. "Aperture is the tactile size of a hole; shutter speed is estimated by the difference of sound at different speeds while the variance in warmth of light while standing in and out of shadows on a bright day shows ISO," he says. 

Twenty-five-year-old Mahesh Shantilal Umrrania explains how he goes about his seemingly difficult hobby. "If I want to photograph your face, I'll feel it first, then step back to what I feel is the right distance, and shoot," he says. "When it comes to shooting my surroundings, I have to rely on somebody else's description of the scene. But only for a cursory sketch. Climate and sound are crucial indicators to light and distance. If there's a river close by, I can tell my proximity to it by the sound of its current. If the sound is tempered, I'll know if an obstacle, like a house or foliage, stands before it," explains Umrrania, whose next assignment will be human expressions. He is cautious of praise; he wants his pictures to be evaluated on their own merit, not on sympathy. 

For 21-year-old political science undergrad Bhavesh Patel, photography is like seeing the world in a non-visual way. His photographs are memory markers just like they are for sighted people, except that his pictures evoke the impressions made by his four senses and not the fifth. "My biggest challenge was photographing pigeons in flight at Dadar's Kabutarkhana, because I had to catch them at the brief and precise moment of motion," he says. Photography has found him a new social role—class photographer. He wants to one day run a photo studio and earn his livelihood from it. 

By then, new technology will give the blind a better picture. But Pranav Lal, an adaptive technology enthusiast is already on to the future. He uses a free software, vOICe (seeingwithsound.com), which scans the visual field and converts it into an auditory landscape that offers the blind photographer an approximate view through sound. "All you need is a laptop, headphones and a webcam taped to a cap on your head (or videoglasses from Ebay)," says Lal, born blind, who uses this technology for daily navigation too. "This technology gives you access to stuff you can't feel, like stars, the skyline. It's all very well for someone to tell what they think looks good, but there's nothing like 'seeing  yourself."



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