The frame is tightly cropped. It shows a wooden bench in front of a principal’s old room. One half of the bench is bathed in sunlight pouring in through a window. The other half remains dark and tranquil, giving the photograph a certain mystique.
The picture was taken by Mohummad Ashfaq. But unlike most photographers, Ashfaq, a 19-year-old student of St Xavier’s College, Mumbai, held an image in his mind before taking the shot—Ashfaq is blind.
Ashfaq’s tryst with photography started with the Blind With Camera project, an initiative by the not-for-profit Beyond Sight Foundation, which helps people like Ashfaq integrate with the mainstream through photography.
Mumbai-based Partho Bhowmik started the Blind With Camera project in 2006. The main idea was “to create a platform for visually impaired people to showcase their work, to express their views and to remove this paradox that photography is only about sighted people”, he says.
While for Ashfaq photography is a process of capturing his imagination, for Evgen Bavčar—the Parisian photographer who lost sight in both eyes in consecutive accidents by the time he was 12—the art represents his longing for light. Bavčar, 66, took his first photograph when he was 16, and since then his work has been exhibited across Europe. It was Bavčar’s work that inspired Bhowmik, a corporate executive and amateur photographer, to start this project. “The journey began with just one student and lots of doubts and questions,” says Bhowmik. By end-2007, Bhowmik had 10 students, and over the last six years, he has trained more than 500 students across the country.
Bhowmik’s students include those who cannot see at all as well as those with partially impaired vision. The training starts by familiarizing them with the camera (mostly digital), its lens, screen and buttons. For shooting outdoors, the visually impaired are asked to feel the space, sense the layout of objects, follow sounds, locate subjects through touch and hold the camera steady and straight. They are also asked to listen to the detailed description from the sighted companion and feel the warmth of light entering the space to identify the direction of light and contrast. Some of these students have gone on to train newcomers.
For some, like 19-year-old Kaustubh Mangesh Tapal, a second-year arts student of St Xavier’s College who lost his sight at the age of 9, memories of the time he could see also help. “While taking a picture of a friend who told me that he was wearing a black shirt, I asked him to stand at a place where there is a lot of greenery, and recalled the contrast that it might have and clicked the picture. It turned out well,” he says.
The photographers get to review their pictures through adaptive ways, such as tactile pictures which are “raised” on a flat surface so they can be touched. There is also an audio description which includes a detailed narrative, providing a detailed description of the original work. Even the text on display at the exhibitions organized by the foundation, including the footnotes in catalogues and the invitations, are in Braille. Every year, Bhowmik organizes two exhibitions. He is yet to fix the dates for the exhibitions this year.
The blind photography movement is slowly taking off in India. However, for a country with about 7.8 million blind people, the technology that can enable the blind to take photographs is limited. Software and hardware that can help these photographers is available, but it is expensive and hard to find. Delhi-based photographer Pranav Lal, who is also blind, uses vOICe, a camera-based visual sound technology, which provides the experience of live camera views through image-to-sound rendering. “The sounds produced are converted into electrical impulses, which are similar to seeing an object. The higher the pitch, the more the height of the object. Similarly, the louder the sound, the brighter the object. So it helps in framing and composing the picture,” he says.
Photographer Prashant Panjiar finds their work “difficult to imagine”. He says: “Photography is about seeing, and to not be able to see and produce pictures is amazing. Their art should not be seen as a livelihood for them, rather an expression of their inner thoughts and an exploration of their personal being.”
Bhowmik believes the problem lies in the mindset. “In India, disabled people are considered under- or non-performers. Measures like including art and photography as vocational subjects in the blind school should be taken so that they can achieve better results.”
Seconding that is the first student of the Blind With Camera project, 27-year-old Mahesh Umrrania, who is also a sitarist and an acupressure therapist based in Mumbai, “People often judge our work sympathetically and clap, rather than truly engaging in a photo, or asking me about the technicalities or my idea or thought process while making that picture.” Umrrania says all he wants is normal critiquing “Rubbish my photo if you don’t like (it), but treat it like any other photograph,” he adds.