My local paper, theChapel Hill News, ran a very nicely done story, Through a lens darkly, about me a few weeks ago. The reported had done the interview a while ago, so I did not know when to expect it. The day it ran, I brought the paper in only to toss it into the living room for later perusal. An hour later, an email arrived congratulating me. I checked the paper again and found two of my images on the front page. Definitely a nice feeling.
Legally blind photographer adigital pioneer
Before he takes a single photograph, Tim O’Brien circles the periphery of the outdoor hockey rink.
“I need to familiarize myself with the environment and my subject,” he said.
“I’m using all the available information — from memories, to sounds, to the reactions of others — to stitch an image together.”
You would not know O’Brien is legally blind. He does not use a cane, dark glasses or a guide dog. Independent and determined, he moves as freely as possible.
“Without a cane or other external indicators, my blindness is paradoxically invisible,” said O’Brien acknowledging for many it is hard to see he is blind without the accepted visual cues.
As a blind photographer, O’Brien is pioneering a traditionally “sighted” only field, a movement that has grown along with the digital age.
In first grade, growing up in Boston, O’Brien failed the eye test. Around his ninth birthday he was diagnosed with Stargardt’s Disease near, a form of juvenile macular degeneration, where the vision is lost within the center of the eye, while the periphery stays strong. Over time, total vision loss can occur, destroying the peripheral vision also.
“The doctors told my mother, ‘We can’t cure this, make him comfortable, fed and well rested,” O’Brien said.
His mother, however, did not intend to coddle her son, and encouraged him to try various sports until he found the right one. “My mother didn’t want me to be an invalid,” he said. “I played youth hockey and baseball,” he said, “but I excelled in basketball and soccer because I could actually see the ball.”
O’Brien’s mother instilled in him the confidence he needed to refuse being labeled.
“She’s a very big fan of the Kennedy family, and she loved to say to me, it’s not a disability, just a higher level of challenge,” he said.
O’Brien went to Harvard University and received his undergraduate degree in economics. His biggest challenges were not seeing the blackboard and reading the text, but even that couldn’t stop him, and he headed to Boston University for a graduate degree in economics. While at Boston University, O’Brien met his wife of eight years, Julia Gamas, also an economist.
“Tim has always enjoyed visual art,” said Gamas who adds she was not surprised when O’Brien stumbled across photography in the late ’90s while teaching economics at Lasell College in Newton, Mass.
“Tim came home with a digital camera, and in no time was taking really good photographs that highlighted things I had never noticed,” she said.
O’Brien was introduced to photography just before he lost most of his vision and became legally blind.
“Despite my vision loss, I am still a very visual person,” said O’Brien who says digital photography opened a new world to him. “The 3×5 prints from film cameras were never large enough for me to appreciate any details.”
Digital photography has provided an invaluable resource to visually impaired photographers all over the world.
Tony Deifell, author of “Seeing Beyond Sight,” volunteered from 1992 to 1997 at the Governor Morehead School for the Blind in Raleigh, teaching blind teenagers to “listen to shadows.” His program was the first in the country to teach photography to blind students.
His motivation stemmed from his own fear as a photographer that someday he too could lose his sight. “I began to wonder, if I were blind, could I still make photographs,” said Deifell.
Then, he wondered, what would the photos taken by a visually impaired individual look like?
Deifell’s says with a camera blind students have the ability to tell stories they might not otherwise have the opportunity to express. “Teaching photography to the blind is about helping them express themselves in new and powerful ways — something we all want to do regardless of our abilities or disabilities.”
Shortly, after moving to Chapel Hill in 2005, O’Brien started a Flickr group for Blind Photographers to occupy his time while looking for a local research/policy job.
“I had assumed I was the only visually-impaired person crazy enough to delve into photography,” he said and shook his head. “Apparently not!”
The group took off, and has more than 175 members worldwide. Last fall, together with fellow blind photographer, Alex de Jong, from the Netherlands, O’Brien launched the web site, Blind Photographers ( www.blindphotographers.org) to be by, for and about blind and visually-impaired photographers.
Act of faith
Back at the hockey rink, O’Brien has familiarized himself with the size and depth of the rink. He puts his camera to his eye, and an act of faith has begun.
“When I gather the information, I snap the shutter — usually repeatedly — hoping the camera has seen what I saw in my mind’s eye.”
He will go home, download the photos onto his monitor, open up the software program Lightroom, and painstakingly zoom into each photo, his nose inches from the screen, until he finds the shot that tells the story he means to tell.
It might seem like a paradox, a blind photographer, he admits. “I’m trying to own the label, rather than the other way around. While my eyes may not see as well, my photographic vision is just as valid as anyone else’s.”
A week later, the paper featured me again, this time in the Roses and Raspberries column.
Roses to Chapel Hill’s Tim O’Brien, who reminds us that so much depends on how you look at things.
O’Brien is a photographer, and a very good one. He is also legally blind.
Most of us wouldn’t think to put those two things together. Photography is a quintessentially visual medium, after all; a photograph doesn’t even have the tactile quality that, say, an oil painting does.
O’Brien, though, has never considered his condition — a form of macular degeneration — a handicap. His mother, he says, always told him it was a challenge, not a disability, and he has taken her words to heart.
Being visually impaired means he goes about shooting photos somewhat differently than a normally sighted photographer; before she takes any shots, he makes his way around the environment in which he is shooting, familiarizing himself with the layout, the light sources and so on. After he’s taken his photos, he uses computer software to illuminate and blow up the images to a size that allows him to work on them.
O’Brien was surprised to find that he wasn’t “the only visually impaired person crazy enough to delve into photography.” Turns out there are quite a few; a number of them now contribute to the Web site he launched, www.blindphotographers.org.
Thanks, CHN!If you find this post useful or interesting, please consider buying me a cup of coffee.