Blind Photographers See With Other Senses By David Block

Dialogue      Winter 2016 

For 40 years, Steven Erra of New York City has been a photographer. Now, he is on the verge of losing his last vestiges of eyesight due to retinitis pigmentosa. .

He spends less time photographing these days.

“When I lose the rest of my sight, I’ll then do more photography,” said Erra, 59. “I don’t need to see to take pictures. I can do that whether I’m blind or not. Right now, I’m concentrating on things that I need my eyesight for like writing and painting.” He was not joking.

Erra belongs to the New York City group seeing with Photography, some of whose members are partially or totally blind. The type of photography that they do is called light painting, in which the photographer opens the camera shutter while in a dark room and then shines a light – usually a flashlight – on images that he or she wants to develop into a photo.

The blind person tells the group how he or she wants the picture to look, and the group follows the directions.

“Light painting gives the blind photographer more control of how the picture will turn out instead of snapping a camera,” said the fully sighted Mark Andres, 64, “We think about a picture that we want to create. It’s more like an image in our minds. Most people are still seeing all the time, even if they lost all their sight. They can create imagery in their minds. We can figure out a way to make that happen by using flashlights as a theme.”

The group did not start out as light painters.

When Andres took over the group in 1986, they were still walking outside snapping their cameras. Nearly a decade later, he introduced them to light painting.

I thought that we should do projects together as a group, without me being the teacher so much, but another participant,” said Andres. “When we tried light painting, it just clicked. It’s an equal kind of deal. You can’t really see the picture when you’re making it anyway.You don’t know what’s going to happen completely.”  

Light painting is not a new photographic genre.

According to Barbara London, Jim Stone, and John Upton, authors of Photography, early versions of this type of photography date back to about the time of Aristotle.

They wrote:

“It had been known that rays of light passing through a pinhole would form an image. The 10th century Arabian scholar Alhazen described the effect in detail and told how to view an eclipse in a camera obscura  – literally dark chamber a darkened room with a pinhole opening to the outside.”

Both Erra and Andres said that being part of Seeing with Photography allows blind and visually impaired people to feel part of the sighted world.

The group has given demonstrations throughout the U.S., and in other countries such as Russia, Sweden, and The Netherlands

“We don’t advertise,” said Andres. “People find us online and they invite us.”

To learn more, visit www.seeingwithphotography.com

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