Photography can be used to create art or record history. It can also be used as a visual aid. Most people see to photograph; I photograph to see. For decades. I have created images in order to fight the negative stereotypes of people with disabilities. When I discovered that you do not have to see what you are photographing to see what you have photographed, I began an odyssey that has taken me from the Smithsonian Institution to the White House to Seoul, Korea and hundreds of points in between.
The odyssey began the day I looked at four small photographs and realized I had stopped seeing the world around me. The four photographs represented a day’s shooting by a friend. For hours I had helped her carry 60 pounds of heavy, antiquated equipment to four sites. I stood by while she set the ancient 4×5 wooden camera on an even more ancient wooden tripod. For more than an hour I walked around each site. I saw what she was photographing. Later that day, I held her 4×5 inch con tact prints in my hand and realized I did not recognize any of the scenes. What I had seen was strictly in my mind.
I was born legally blind with 20/400 vision in both eyes. Because of a combination of astigmatism, nastagmus. eccentric fixation and myopia (all acute), my eyesight was not optically correctable. Although born legally blind, I was completely mobile and could read most print by holding the reading material close to my eyes. The year between journalism and law school I noticed a change in my vision. Later it was diagnosed as an unknown form of retinal degeneration. In the year following the diagnosis, my vision began to diminish so slowly that I was unaware of the precious sight I was losing. I was 27 and in the middle of law studies at the University of Texas. I began to have to use a magnifier to read, but didn’t realize what I had stopped seeing around me.
The day I held those contact prints in my hand, I discovered that photography allowed me to pre serve this priceless channel of communication. The first year I experimented almost daily with the camera. At this point, the full impact of the use of photography hit me; I had stopped seeing faces and begun to imagine them. One of my first experiments was with self-portraits. It was startling to look at a self-portrait and realize that the face in the print did not look like the face in my mirror. It was equally disturbing to realize I had stopped seeing the faces of my friends. I dis covered that old friends had familiar faces, while new friends sometimes did not look anything like I thought they did. The friends I knew before my retina problem stayed familiar in appearance because I remembered what they looked like. Friendships made after the slow degeneration process began had faces created only in my imagination.
In 1976, United Press International (UPI), quoted me in a nationally released story on my work, “The only way I can see a face is to photograph it or to sleep with it; as I get older, photography is the easier choice.” Later, for The Washington Post, I cleaned up the quote and said, “I never make a pass until I make a print.”
In the ensuing years I have had stories about my work in The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post and hundreds of smaller papers, thanks to a nationally released Associated Press story. Features on my work have aired on the Today show, ABC, CBS, NBC and PBS.
If I had not discovered photography as a tool for seeing. I would have spent the rest of my life in a world of blurs. Photography allows me to see what I otherwise could not see.
“How?” is most people’s first reaction. The answer is simple; a photograph is not reality, but an abstraction of reality. Even the most correctly developed conventional photograph is a high-contrast abstraction of the object or scene it represents. A print transforms the millions of colors, shades, hues and textures of reality to basic primary colors or a few shades of gray between black and white. Confusing three-dimensional shapes and forms are reduced to a small two-dimensional representation The print allows persons with diminished vision to hold the world in their hands and view it from their own best perspective.
In recent years, I have photographed with both conventional and digital cameras. Today I work almost exclusively with digital images. I have photographed both in black and white and in color. While many people love the bright colors available through modern printing techniques, I prefer my work be in black and white or sepia. Most people I know prefer the kinder sepia for portraits. This technique is easy to achieve by manipulating digital images with my digital desktop darkroom.
Digital photography has given me a much wider range of control than I had in my conventional darkroom. For a while. I had the film commercially processed and printed, but this did not give me the control I wanted. Commercially processed film and prints are all treated the same way, with no allowances for over or under exposure.
Combined with the new and relatively inexpensive hardware and software available, digital photography allows people who are blind or have low vision to create images calculated to help overcome their particular visual problems. The digital desktop darkroom is far less expensive, both for start-up and maintenance than the conventional chemical darkroom. As its name implies, the only space needed is a desktop. Many of the software programs can be easily learned by children in elementary school. The digital images allow them to capture their culture, be it Houston, Harlem or Seoul. Korea, and manipulate it into visual images they can see, understand and explain as part of their classroom work. These visual images can allow a person who is blind or has low-vision to see the faces of their parents and peers that would be otherwise impossible.
Whereas the U.S. Department of Education’s Disability Statistics Abstract (May, 1998) states, “People with dis abilities continue to live in relative social isolation,” photography allows an excuse for students who are blind or low-vision and other students with disabilities to interact with their peers and their community. It is my custom to make two copies of every person’s face I photograph. I keep one as a record, and the second I give to the subject. This method will guarantee the student photographer an avenue of continued social interaction with their peers that might otherwise not exist.
Several years ago, I taught two photography workshops at the Harlem Independent Living Center in New York City. We spent several hours walking around Harlem, allowing the students to photograph anything they pleased. We used conventional disposable cameras, and the instruction was minimal. James Billy, the center’s executive director, told me he had never seen such inter action between the students and the community. The photographs we got back covered a myriad of aspects of community life, from portraits of people to shots of architecture. The cameras seemed to give the students a sense of confidence, and even purpose, in their interaction with individuals they met on the street. The cam eras broke down the stereotypes, myths, and negative images associated with disability in the minds of both the student and the Harlem community.
I have used the concept of blind photographer to correct the media’s image of what a blind person is. Most people don’t realize that 90 percent of people who are legally blind have some usable vision. I have often said of my work with the media, “I intrigue them, then I educate them.”
I have taught workshops at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, the Hirshhorn, and the National Muse um of American Art. As a guest of Samsung, the electronics giant, I taught a one-day digital photography workshop for the Korean Association of the Blind. At the end of the workshop we had an exhibition of the student’s work. Also included with the student’s photographs were photographs made by typical (sighted) Samsung employees. We then invited the Korean media to determine which photographs were taken by the blind students and which were taken by the typical employees. Media representatives could not tell the difference.
The student can quickly be taught that the key to seeing is the manipulation of perspective and detail. The most important aspect of reducing a scene or object to a manipulated image is that it allows the person who has low vision to have total control over both detail and perspective. There are two aspects involved in control. ling these elements. First, a manipulated image allows persons with diminished vision to view the scene or object represented by the photograph in the best light and at a distance from their eyes that compensates for their particular problem. While many require a great deal of light for best results, others might have a vision problem that requires them to see the light coming through the back of the print A photograph allows the control of detail by permitting the individual with diminished vision to get close enough to breathe on the subject rep resented and use a magnifying device if necessary. By using software such as Apple’s iPhoto, Adobe’s elements 2.0 or the more advanced PhotoShop, a student can experiment with filters and effects that will give the maximum amount of information from the original image.
Secondly, the printed image also allows people who are blind or have low-vision to see both detail and perspective at the same time. If a person were to try to move close enough to a subject, for instance, to see detail. they would see only a few inches in any direction. Thus. overall perspective would be lost. If the viewer backed away far enough to have an overall perspective, they would lose detail, which is necessary for overall perspective. Because of my diminished vision, if I see the tree. I can’t see the forest; and if I see the forest, I can’t see the tree. Digital photography literally allows me to make the large small enough to see and the small large enough to see. Software gives me the kind of control that was almost impossible with conventional photography.
Images produced with either a digital camera or a scanned image can be manipulated to maximum advantage with a few keystrokes. Instead of hours in a chemical darkroom, the digital desktop darkroom can allow the student to control the image in a few strokes of the keyboard and a few clicks of the mouse. Opti mum perspective and detail can be created by control ling the resolution and contrast of the manipulated image. I use a 15x-magnifying lens on the screen of my monitor to see the commands I want to control.
Depending on the image. I may begin by sizing the image, and controlling its contrast to give me an idea of my final product. I can then choose whether or not to isolate that portion of the image I am most interested in. I can cut out a cluttered and confusing background a enlarge only the key element. I will not truly see the image until I have printed it out. This first printout is like a working print from a conventional darkroom. I tells me the direction I need to go to get the maximum amount of information from my image. By learning the wide range of possibilities that are available by combining software filters and effects, I know from the first print which manipulations will lead to my final image.
Over the years. I have worked with hundreds of people with low vision, with many different eye problems. I have discovered that photography is the great equalizer. Many sighted people find it difficult to understand that all people who have low vision do not see alike. Measurements such as 20/20, 20/100 or 20/200 simply tell a doctor that you can see to read a certain line on an eye chart. The measurements do not take into account a person’s intellect, education, experience or perceptions. If two people with 20/200 vision look at a painting by Monet or Picas so, their background and not their eyesight will tell them what they see.
The key to my ability to interpret visual images is perception. I can walk into a room for the first time and see almost nothing. As I learn the contents of the room, my brain interprets what I perceive as a visual image. When I have become familiar with that room. I can describe every object in it and its placement. I actually see the contents of that room by interpreting small bits of information that upon first entry were totally confusing. My malfunctioning eyes are augmented by memory, imagination and experience. I interpret as much as I actually see, and photography helps speed up and improve the interpretation.
As my vision continues to disintegrate, I have turned most of my portraits into sketches. These sketches liter ally allow me to see the highlights of a person’s face. They are my ultimate abstraction of reality. Generally, I print them out on plain typing paper or index card stock. and I have discovered that most people prefer them to conventional prints. To create my sketches, I first turn a color image into a grayscale, then sharpen the edges, and then find a tool that will create the image as a sketch. There are a variety of avenues that can be pursued, but I prefer the simplest. Turning an image into a sketch maximizes my remaining five percent of vision. This should not be a prescription, since each individual must find their own best image by experimentation.
Photography can allow persons with impaired vision to crystallize time and space and hold it in their hands. The camera has become the diary of our times, and each photograph is a page in that diary. Like a visual time machine, a student can follow a loved one from birth to death and hold in their hands precious moments forever frozen in crystal-moments felt, but unseen without the gift of photography.
Several years ago, I moved from the canyons of Manhattan to the high dessert canyons of West Texas. While I continue to shoot portraits almost daily, I have included the beauty and grandeur of my surrounding country in my work. The blurs of mountains and mesas become visible in my prints when I observe them through a 15x magnifying lens and a great deal of light. Without photography, this magnificent landscape would look like a Monet painting. I prefer the sharp clarity that is a little closer to reality.
As long as I can see to photograph, I will never be blind.
George A Covington is former Special Assistant for Disability Policy 1989-931 to the Vice President of the United States and the first person to serve fulltime as a White House aide on disability issues, He is an attorney, a former journalism professor and author of Let your Camera do the Seeing, which is available on cassette from the library of Congress, NLS Division of the Blind Covington is co-author of Access by Design Van Nostrand Reinhold 1996) which deals with the concept of universal design. The author of the book Photo Hero a satire of photography, he lives in Alpine, Texas.