Photographer Partho Bhowmick who trains the visually-challenged to click pictures the professional way

If someone were to tell you that one doesn’t require vision to take photographs, would you believe it? You would if you saw the pictures clicked by Mahesh Umrannia, Vaibhav Girkar and many others like them who are visually-challenged. They are part of Blind With Camera, a programme started by Partho Bhowmick in 2006. The idea came about when Bhowmick, an avid photographer, picked up a photo magazine from a roadside vendor in Mumbai. He came across an article about Evgen Bavcar, an accomplished visually-challenged photographer based in Paris. 

"My passion for photography made me contact Evgen over the Internet and I was influenced by his work and philosophy. I engaged in a study on blindness and visual art and, in the process, came into contact with several visually-challenged photographers and artists around the world and people working towards giving deeper insights about them and their artistic expressions," says Bhowmick, who works with Pidilite Industries.

After almost two years of research on blindness and visual art, Bhowmick decided to conduct a workshop on photography for the blind. Initially it wasn't easy dealing with the flurry of queries and doubts. He spent a couple of months trying to gather participants but managed to get just one. However, that didn't deter him from going ahead with his first workshop at the Victoria Memorial School for the Blind, Mumbai. Nearly six years down the line, Blind With Camera trains over 500 visually-challenged students across the country. 

'How do the visually-challenged take photographs' is the most common question asked. He explains, "During workshops, people with vision and the visually-challenged share visual realities, discuss the problems caused by disability and how challenges are faced. The visually-challenged are asked to spend time feeling the space, sensing the layout of objects in that space, touching them or using their judgment. They are asked to listen to a detailed description by a sighted companion and other sounds, feel the warmth of light entering the space to identify the direction of light and contrast.” Those not born blind are asked to recall memories of sight and correlate them with external reality. This process helps visual thinking and creates an abstract mental image. “By seeking more clues, the visually-challenged then create a refined version of the mental image. Next, by touch and judgment they measure the distance from the object and the space around it, place the camera in relation to the object and finally click a photograph." 

Since they work on sound cues, it is possible that they become confused by other sounds in the environment. “But over a period of time they learn which sound to follow,” he adds.

Apart from Mumbai, workshops have also been conducted in Goa, Pune, Kolkata and Bangalore. Bhowmick is looking forward to conducting one in Chennai, provided local organisations are interested.

To make the photographer understand what he has clicked Blind With Camera has introduced the ‘In Touch with Picture’ project. This integrates methods followed by art museums across the globe to enable visually-challenged visitors to understand art collections. In Touch With Picture is guided by the Disability Equality Policy on access to art and culture. Tactile pictures, audio description, Braille and large print sizes are some ways to help them understand what they have clicked and get a feel of works of fellow photographers.

To teach such photography across borders, Bhowmick has set up an e-school. It is a step-by-step tutorial that guides photographers with sight to conduct workshops for the visually-challenged in their neighbourhood. "The website gets around 500 hits per month," he says.

In addition, the organisation conducts blindfold photo workshops where visually-challenged photographers train those with sight to take pictures. "It works around a revenue model and is a source of income for visually-challenged trainers and boosts their self-esteem," says Bhowmick.

Plans are on to launch an illustrated book on Blind With Camera, with touch and feel pictures and audio description. There will also be an e-audio book version for the blind and print-disabled readers. "We are also planning to organise the first national photo competition for the visually-challenged in India. This is to show the mind’s eye can ‘see’ more than actual ‘seeing’, endorsing what photographer Walker Evans once said,  ‘The blind are not totally blind. Reality is not totally real.’”

(Blind With Camera is a project of Beyond Sight Foundation. For details, log onto www.blindwithcamera.org)