Partho Bhowmick, whose Blind With Camera project teaches photography to the visually impaired, has trained 200 students since 2006
One corporate executive has proven, as the sports ad goes, that nothing is impossible. Mumbai-based Partho Bhowmick started the “Blind With Camera” project in 2006 teaching photography to the visually impaired and won the Karmaveer Puraskaar (National Award for Social Justice and Citizen Action) in 2009.
“Those who are blind or visually impaired have the ability to create images in their mind,” says Bhowmick, “but they never have the opportunity or purpose to communicate it, either verbally or visually. We never speak to them in a verbal context. Through my work, I'm trying to say that these images in their minds cannot be different from visual reality. Those who cannot see, build images in their heads, for independent living. This they do through touch, sound and warmth of light.” Bhowmick was in town for the Arts Education Conference organised by the India Foundation for the Arts.
He thought of this project in early 2004 when he read an article about Evgen Bavcar, an accomplished blind French photographer.
He got in touch with Bavcar and the international organisation Art Beyond Sight and then did independent research on blindness and visual art forms.
Bhowmick started the project in February 2006 and has since then trained over 200 blind students, over 30 per cent of whom, he says, are now independent photographers.
His method is quite simple. “First we find out their levels of visual perception by asking them a few descriptive questions. Then we give them a camera and ask them to feel it and teach them what the different parts are. Next we ask them to go around a familiar space, usually school, and shoot whatever they like. After that, we ask them to share their experiences so we can judge their synergy levels between the context and photos. Based on this we group them into different categories and teach them.”
There are 12 modules in the workshop, each lasting six hours. Once the workshop is done, the trainers visit the students to monitor their performance. Finally, the best photographs from all the different schools are exhibited across the country.
Bhowmick believes that these photographs should also be accessible to the visually impaired. So he ensures that they are accompanied by ‘touch and feel' raised pictures, descriptions in Braille and large print, and magnifying sheets so that those who have low vision can read the text. There are also audio players that describe the photograph. “When they take photographs, they want to see them. Also, visitors won't be able to relate to the photographs if they don't see them.”
His fund-raising ideas for the project and the photographers include blindfold workshops for corporates taken by the visually impaired. Five of his students have now become trainers.
“It's great to see them become trainers because they can make a better impact than those who can see. No matter how much I teach them, I'm still an outsider and both our minds work differently. The real challenge is to replicate the programme in the other cities, make clones of Partho,” he grins.
He hopes to introduce photography as a vocational subject in blind schools across the country. “By introducing such courses, we are trying to build an art movement where an artist doesn't use his retina to create. To bring about such a movement, we have to start from the bottom, with education.”
Making them believe that it's possible is harder than teaching them how to do it. Bhowmick began with just one student. “The visually impaired have a brilliant learning curve because their sight does not distract them. Their senses are more focused, so their retention is high. Whenever we ask what they get from the workshop, they say they are proud to be part of this seemingly impossible initiative.”
When an interviewer asked one of the photographers to take a photograph with his mobile, he managed to do it, though he had never worked with mobiles before. “These incidents show how high their confidence levels are,” says Bhowmick. “I see art as a tool to advocate equal opportunities for the disabled. If they can take photos, they can do anything else.”