Visionary artists

Eye-opening works in exhibition put creativity -- not disability -- in focus


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It makes no sense that visually impaired people can take great photographs.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 19/02/2016 (2663 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

It makes no sense that visually impaired people can take great photographs.

If you believe that, then you won’t believe your eyes when you see work by Winnipeg’s Tara Miller, who takes photos for a living even though she has only four to five per cent vision — and that’s in her good eye.

And the world will look different after a visit to the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, which today unveils a new exhibition of photographs, videos and artwork called Sight Unseen: International Photography by Blind Artists.

John Woods / The Canadian Press
New 3D printing technology is on display at The Canadian Museum for Human Rights (CMHR) as they open a new exhibition, Sight Unseen: International Photography by Blind Artists, in Winnipeg.
John Woods / The Canadian Press New 3D printing technology is on display at The Canadian Museum for Human Rights (CMHR) as they open a new exhibition, Sight Unseen: International Photography by Blind Artists, in Winnipeg.

The exhibition marks the 10th anniversary of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. All the photos are taken by artists who are visually impaired.

Some of the works can even be touched, including pieces by former Life magazine photographer John Olson. His company, 3D PhotoWorks, has created opportunities for museum visitors to use their sense of touch instead of relying solely on their sight, to gain a full appreciation of the image.

“For me, being visually impaired and not seeing anything in three dimensions, it was really cool,” says Miller, who took part in a sneak preview of the exhibition on Wednesday. “Sometimes it was difficult for me to adjust for it, because I see everything flat — I’ve never seen anything in three dimensions.

“I was able to feel that and put it together in my mind and feel the difference when the light meets the dark on the image. When you put it together it’s miraculous.”

Miller contracted congenital rubella syndrome before being born and needed operations as an infant just to retain a fraction of her eyesight. She learned photography in school, but it became more difficult in junior high when glaucoma eroded what little sight she had.

On March 16, she will be a guest lecturer at the museum, where she will discuss how she’s been able to succeed in a visual medium.

For Sight Unseen curator Douglas McCulloh, a sighted photographer from the Los Angeles area — “the heart of darkness,” he jokes — putting together the exhibition was a personal revelation.

“I became fascinated with the idea that there were blind photographers,” he said. “The genesis is in my own obsession with thinking about photography and thinking about sight — outward sight versus inner vision. And that’s kind of the crux of it. The idea of photography is not just seeing, but more of a mental operation than a purely visual one.

“In truth, it’s as much philosophical as it is visual. How do you see? Do you really see? Are we seeing or are we not seeing? Are we blinded by too much sight? Eventually, it spins your head around.”

McCulloh says people with full vision face a barrage of “visual pollution” caused by the 21st century’s image-obsessed society. Visually impaired people don’t suffer from this handicap, he says.

“A blind person cannot be influenced by anything,” he says. “They are operating in a pure world, which is their own internal visual space in their mind. The sighted world has become blind and perhaps the blind have become the visionaries.”

One of those visionaries is Sacramento, Calif., photographer Pete Eckert, who lost his sight gradually due to retinitis pigmentosa. The Sight Unseen contributor says he’s building a bridge between the visually impaired and the fully sighted cultures with his photos.

In a video called Dancing on the Edge of Perception, which is part of the exhibition, Eckert welcomes viewers into his dark and unsettling world.

“I do a lot of photography in the dark and I do it this way because darkness and blindness are related,” Eckert says in the video. “It’s a simple visual metaphor to show where I am.”

He can only see flashes of light, he says, and his photographs, shot with a 1950s-era film camera and an array of flashlights, laser pointers, candles and lighters, reveal a version of these images and sometimes ghostly shadows.

“He says he passes photographs under the door from the world of the blind to the world of the sighted,” McCulloh says.

Eckert says he sees with sound and touch, much the same way Miller goes about her photographic career, which takes her to events such as Winnipeg Goldeyes baseball games and numerous weddings, where her poor eyesight has never prevented her from capturing the bouquet-catching moment.

“It’s almost like a special ability that I have, that I can take the pictures with not just using my eyesight but using all the (senses) I have, like with my hearing,” Miller says.

In the video, Eckert also describes what it was like to lose his sight just as he was about to start a career in architecture.

“It was very traumatic. It was crushing,” Eckert says. “I walked up and down the hallway going, ‘I will not be beaten.’ And I’m not.”

While the photographers in Sight Unseen have different medical reasons for their loss of eyesight and different levels of visual impairment, they all share a burning desire to share their creativity, McCulloh says.

“This set of people, these artists, are the most ferociously determined people you will ever meet in your life,” McCulloh says. “A number of these people essentially started photography as a statement about disability — a statement of sheer cussedness. It’s kind of fantastic, actually.”


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Alan Small

Alan Small

Alan Small has been a journalist at the Free Press for more than 22 years in a variety of roles, the latest being a reporter in the Arts and Life section.

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