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VISION UNSEEN

- The work of three visually impaired photographers

In the first part of Ship of Theseus, Aaliya Kamal (Aida El-Kashef), a visually-impaired photographer, is in the process of preparing for a cornea transplant that will restore her vision. Though the surgery is a success and Aaliya gets back her sight, she finds it difficult to re-adjust to the world of light, confusion and stress — and what’s more, finds her photography banal. Despite her partner’s reassurances, she decides to go away and the final scenes find her up in the Himalayas. As she prepares to take a photograph, the cap of her camera lens falls into the foaming river below. Though cynics might groan at the rather obvious symbolism of this last freeze shot, Aliya’s loss of the cover reaffirms the ‘loss’ of the protection of unseeing-ness. She can no longer live in a world governed by the imagination and surrealism of the mind’s eye.

For those who marvelled at Aliya’s imagery, a recent display of photographs by three visually-impaired photographers has a familiar resonance; for the sighted, who ask “How can a blind person take photographs?” it points to an inherent myopia. At about the time when the photographer, Rakesh Nagar, started thinking about the notion of vision, he encountered the work of the visually-impaired Japanese photographer, Kuniaki Ito. He decided then to look for other such talented persons, and the exhibition, Vision Unseen, was the result. Showcasing the work of Ito, Evgen Bavcar from France and Flo Fox from the United States of America, the images encouraged the viewer to interrogate accepted notions of seeing and visuality. Accidents caused the two men to lose their sight, while Flo was born blind in one eye. Progressively, she lost sight in the other as well. For all three, commitment to the camera was an exciting challenge.

In addition to a judicious selection of captionless images, on view were the photographers’ responses and brief comments to a series of questions. In answer to his choice of medium, Bavcar’s response, “because I assume that the blind also have a right to depict”, gives pause to all those who are ‘sighted’. With images in his head, “the mind is his gallery, and because it is a space we cannot enter, he chooses to reproduce them to make us privy to his way of seeing,” comments Nagar.

Born into a culture that celebrates technology and the camera, Kuniaki Ito took to photography in his childhood. One such shoot found him plummeting 20 feet to the ground resulting in damage to his eyes; over two years of near-disastrous surgery and rehabilitation followed. As a consequence, “he likes to believe that in this process he traded his sight for his life”. Ito depended on his wife’s descriptions as well as listening to “sounds and air”, while Bavcar composed in his mind, “then I realize it with my camera”.

Flo Fox’s work captures the everydayness of life in New York. There are ubiquitous skyscrapers reflected in muddy puddles, raucous men in bars, conversations with a dog, and endless streets. She felt that her images had a precision that is clearly more than what she could have had with sight, and the camera was an essential prosthesis, accompanying her “even in private moments”. Apart from her visual impairment, she also later developed a motor disability that necessitated depending on others “to shoot the way I explain”. All three were vehement in their assertion that photography was their raison d’ etre.

While Bavcar chose black and white as his preferred medium, for Ito and Fox it was colour. A little girl chases a pigeon in flight and Flo’s camera captures the flurry of the bird’s wings as well as the outstretched hands of the child. The photographic moment missed nothing. Bavcar captures life in a city with parks, streets and people on the move. In one perceptive photograph, an elderly man on a bench chastizes his dog who is seated next to him. The canine looks away disdainfully, quite unmindful of the finger being pointed at him. In another, sunlight streams through a window. Lovers kiss in silhouette. Shoes are lined up on a staircase, people talk, a Grecian profile in ochre and sepia, the limitless skyline of Manhattan whizzing past... The images are compelling and cannot but fill the sighted with wonderment.

Significantly, Nagar’s questions to the photographers indicate very divergent approaches to their situation: while Bavcar visualized in his mind first and then “realize[d] it with my camera, Flo carried her camera all the time and was ready to shoot when I feel I see something that will have historical value”. Ito listened to sounds, and often waited for his wife to explain a situation. But the final selection of the moment was always his. Nagar bravely asked the question that may be in many sighted persons’ minds — how did the photographers feel about translating their thought processes into images?

Bavcar — the most introspective of the three — replied, “I know that I cannot always translate my thoughts in pictures but I try my best possible.” For Flo, perhaps the most disadvantaged, there was apparently no dilemma as she felt that her photos were a precise representation of what was out there. The cautious Japanese man relied on his wife. The three reacted differently to Nagar’s point that if they felt that the term “blind photographer” was hurtful if not wrong, how did they perceive themselves? Bavcar felt that he was an artist deprived of liberty rather than a blind photographer, and while Flo preferred to be known as a visually impaired and physically challenged artist, Ito had no problem being the blind photographer. The camera signified their existence, an essential tool, a life source for all three.

Inspired, if not moved, by the searingly honest response of Bavcar, Flo Fox and Ito, Nagar’s curatorial note quite unequivocally questioned the ‘sight’ of the sighted. Eyesight made us ‘unconscious of our own “blindness” as it is overpowering and subdues other instincts’. While there are, of course, differing opinions on which of our senses is primary, these images question notions of “perception, composition, documentation and the Decisive Moment”. It takes us back to Aliya finding her way to a Mumbai slum, where she photographs a sequence of a woman at a hand pump. She might have listened to the noise of water, of clothes being beaten on stone, of the dog pattering about as she clicked on and on. As she felt her way out and edged her way across busy roads with interminable traffic, a determined confidence marked her steps. A confidence that was markedly absent in her first foray onto the streets with her ‘new’ eyes. There is a terrifying scene where the viewer holds her breath as Aliya barely avoids being run over. She decides to leave — at least, for the time being — choosing a sylvan calm, where she can sort out the turmoil within. For Bavcar, Fox and Ito, there is a not dissimilar solace in being cocooned by sightlessness; and a magical quality to their imagery through the lens that sees and focuses for them. The moment of focus, however is determined by them.