Saturday, February 27, 2010

Photography classes for blind people in India continue

From DNA India. The photo is by Satvir Yogi, a participant in the program.

DELHI, India -- A camera in the hands of visually challenged sounds like a paradox but a group of such people have been found to practice the art of photography which challenges prevailing definitions of art and vision.

"I used to wonder how people could take pictures. Now, I am happy that I too can do it. My camera captures my imagination," says Nikhil Mundhe, born with visual disability. Mudhe, alongwith 15 others, is part of the "Blind with Camera" project, which aims to integrate visually impaired into mainstream society through photography.

Partho Bhowmick, the brain behind the Mumbai-based project conducted the first photography workshop for the blind in 2006 which saw participation increasing over the years.

"Photography by the visually impaired reveals that a photograph can be made successfully in the mind as much as by the eyes, free from techniques and rules followed by sighted photographers. It illuminates a new line of thought distinct
from the way we look at this art," says Bhowmick.

"Using various tactile, audio clues, visual memories of sight, the warmth of light and other cognitive skills they create a mental image before deciding to click a picture. The camera is used as an extension of their self to explore the visual world," he adds.

Bhowmick, who is an IT professional, chanced upon a book by a French author detailing the process whereby even a blind person can click pictures.

Bhowmick researched the subject and enlisted the support of friends to start the "Blind with Camera" series. The almost impossible project, however had to face some real roadblocks before taking off.

"Convincing the blind that they can take pictures was very tough. It took me six months to get the first student to attend my first workshop which was conducted free of cost.

"It was only after two years of intensive research on blindness and visual art, and consultations with over 50 blind visual artists across the world, I was able to define the approach and get things moving,"says Bhowmick.

Participants say the unique effort has instilled a feeling of pride among them and created a source of new income opportunity for them.

"I have a feeling of belonging and pride accomplishing this seemingly impossible task. I also enjoy my newfound financial independence,"says Bhavesh Patel who was born blind.

The photos are usually sold in exhibitions at fixed prices ranging between Rs 5,000 to Rs 9,000. Bhowmick, has organised so far seven exhibitions and distributed Rs 40,000 accumulated from the sale among the artists.

"Our main buyers are artists, art lovers and those who support the cause. Most of them are driven by emotions since part of the proceed goes to the artist directly," he says.

During the workshop, visually impaired participants with a sighted companion share experiences with disability and how challenges of life are handled.

Intense "visual talking" and deep "inward" interaction helps the participants to conceptualise what they want to communicate through photos, says Bhowmick.

The visually impaired are asked to spend time feeling the space, sensing the layout of objects in the space, touching them (if within reach) or using their judgement.

This process triggers a visual thinking for them and the first version of the mental image is abstractly created. By seeking more clues they create a refined version of the mental image.

Then by touch and judgement, they measure the distance from the object and the space around it, place the camera in
relation to the object, space and light, and finally 'click' a photograph.

"Participants with low and partial sight can some what see the photographs taken by them by bringing the photo print close to their eyes or under magnifying glass," says Bhowmik.

Completely blind participants depend on a sighted companion to describe the photography. Discussions on photos focus more on the conceptual and emotional aspect that helps visually impaired photographer to recollect a mental picture and relate it to physical prints.

"Surprisingly sometime they could point almost correctly the position of the objects in the prints," he says.

"The geometry of direction is common to vision and touch and where a sighted person looks out, a blind person reaches out, and they will discover the same things,"says Prof John Kennedy, Toronto University.

Meanwhile, Bhowmick says this art is still in its infancy in India. "Judging the work of blind needs a different sensitivity. Their work is not comparable with the sighted. I plan to start a photo competition for the blind in India very soon," he says.