Our cameras, our minds

by November 11, 2013
Photograph by Gerald Larocque, "Constant Resurrections" (series, 2011)

Photograph by Gerald Larocque, “Constant Resurrections” (series, 2011)

It seems axiomatic that photography is a sighted person’s art form. But Gina Badenoch, who facilitates photography workshops with blind people and marginalized communities, argues that it’s also a language that can connect us to each other, and help us to see.

LISA MEEKISON: Your project, My Myanmar at a Click, is a beautiful but sometimes unsettling self-portrait of a country that’s been largely cut off from the rest of the world for decades. Can you tell us about this project to introduce us to your work?

GINA BADENOCH: As a photographer, what I love is to use photography as a way to make the invisible, visible. For me it’s a way to communicate and connect with others, so I always look for ways in which I can give a voice to those who are not being heard. My Myanmar at a Click was born of a desire to create a space for the people of Myanmar to tell their own stories, share their ideas, thoughts, fears and passions through their photographs. I wanted a dialogue bottom to top while taking part at the Young Global Leaders Summit and the World Economic Forum in Myanmar in June this year. Photography is a way to connect, share and express among a diverse audience.

I was struck by the fact that in the book that accompanies My Myanmar at a Click, you begin with people articulating what they see as the essential scent of Myanmar: jasmine, mohingar [traditional fish soup], tea leaves… the “smoke of greediness”. Why begin a photographic essay with thoughts about smell?

The truth is that my interest was to start by focusing on the essence of their country, and smell came first as a reference of what we do to keep us alive: breathe! But the most important thing was to take the photographers and the audience through a journey where their senses would remind them the roots of where they come from and what makes it a unique place and, for many, what they call home. It was important for people who have never had a camera in their hands to find a way to connect and express their thoughts, feelings, and ideas.

As human beings, we must remember the importance of smelling, listening, touching, tasting, and seeing things from different angles.

For me the process of taking photos is a journey where I connect with myself; it’s like a meditation that allows me to become an observer, to feel and share with others. I think a photographic essay cannot be only visual, because it would lose its soul, its life.

Is the idea to make people better photographers by grounding them in their bodies, and in a specific place and time? Or is it about using photography as a tool to awaken both viewers and photographers to our senses, and to some of the intangible qualities of life such as place and belonging?

I like the idea of using photography as a tool for people to connect and understand their identity, and discover the essence and small details which can be beautiful—if we find the way to see them.

As individuals we are more than what one can see on the surface; the irony is most of the time that which we can feel and which is part of our essence has become invisible. Through photography one gets to create and express oneself, and what I wish is for people to communicate by focusing on their personal journey, on who and why they are in this world, on what they feel, think, and desire.

We need to slow down, stop assuming half of the story, and start listening to both sides of it.

As for making people better photographers, all I know is that for me a good photograph must have soul, and to get there one must connect with oneself and with the subject to be photographed. How people make this happen is very personal.

You’ve taught photography to people who are visually impaired and have said that it can help people transcend physical and psychological limitations they may have lived with for years. How does photography accomplish this?

I must say I was surprised when I first ran the sensory photography workshop for the blind. I wasn’t expecting such emotional impact, but it has happened in every single country where I have given the workshop, no matter the culture or the age of the participants. I think it’s as simple as the fact that nowadays, photography is a form of language, a way to communicate and connect with others. If you think about how many images we encounter—I read somewhere they estimated that we see around 247 images per day—now think the number of messages we receive through them.

We live in a visual world, and for blind people who are excluded from this, photography becomes a way to communicate, to express their feelings and ideas. It’s a way to connect and be seen and heard for what they do have.

With their photos, they are part of the process of creating images, putting together their own concepts, documenting what they perceive on a daily basis. Who enjoys being invisible or letting others speak on your behalf? How does any individual feel when they have a voice and are part of something? They feel empowered! You then understand the purpose of being alive.

Photography has become a reason for them to get back out on the streets and explore, document, and share their surroundings.

Could you tell me more about the actual process of a blind person taking a picture? For example, how does he or she think about and compose the image? And how do they evaluate and respond to the image afterwards?

In order for me to answer this question, I want to invite you to close your eyes, and remember the last time you listened to the radio, read a book, or smelled something which reminded you of an experience.

The truth is that we see with our brain, not with our eyes. We get information through all our senses and then start to map an image. It’s the same for visually impaired people: they use their senses to create a road map to produce an image.

For example, sound is a reference for the photographers to know where their model is, and also to identify distance and height. To frame the photo, they open their arms 75° to 80°, as that is the angle of view of the point-and-shoot basic digital cameras. Using touch, they can get additional information, like the texture of clothes or other things they are taking a photo of, and the length and type of hair of their subjects. And smell plays a role, for example, when walking down the streets it becomes a reference for what is going on around the photographer.

When it comes to evaluating their photos, I would like to point out that this is more difficult for sighted people to understand, as we usually focus on the end result of photography, on the actual print, and we forget about the process of taking a photo.

As a photographer this is what I enjoy the most: the process of creating my image in order to then share it with others. For visually impaired people, it’s the same. The main reason they take photographs is because they want to connect with the sighted world: they want to be seen and heard through their images. When a sighted person describes their photo to them, they must do it in an interactive way, asking the photographer what they remember from the photo, where he took it, what he wanted to communicate, and so on. In this way a dialogue begins, and they connect.

How did you become involved in this work?

I became involved after going to an exhibition called “Dialogue in the Dark”, where you were guided by blind people through different rooms, all in complete darkness. While I was going through that journey, where through my other senses I got to perceive space and create images in my mind, I had a magical epiphany: why not give a voice to those who are not being seen or heard? Why not teach photography to blind people so they can use their cameras as tools to create and to express their processes of perceiving life?

As a photographer I am passionate about connecting with objects and subjects to be photographed, in order to share them with others who weren’t present. I love feeling the moment through all my senses and trying to get to its essence.

We live a very visual world—it’s even become easy to take photos with our phones—but what I would ask is whether it’s as easy to really connect with others, and to listen to what they want to say, without making assumptions based on our prejudices and without projecting our own biases?

Are we seeing photos or really looking at them? Because when we see something, it might just be a reaction to what comes into our sight, whereas to look at something is for a reason, there is an intention.

Blind people need to talk to people to get to know them, to create an image which will give them a reason to like them or not. Sighted people see people and from that reaction combined with our prejudices we become biased—and from there we find a reason to like them or not. We have blind spots which need to be managed.

For this reason, I believe that working with blind people and through blind people is the best way to change paradigms and eradicate mental blindness, in order to look at people and not just see them.

There is always a story to be told, and one to be heard.

Your distinction between seeing something and looking at it with intention is interesting. Do you mean that you’re also using photography to help sighted people slow down and reconsider images and ideas they usually take for granted?

Yes. I think we are moving too fast, and as a consequence we are not really looking at people, places, or circumstances.

We are forgetting the value of the process involved in getting to know and understand the unknown. We more often react, rather than observe, and rather than listening to both sides of the story to cultivate compassion and empathy. We are living in a globalized world, but let’s not forget that being global means different cultures, educations, and economic and political situations, and most important, it involves people with very different stories and histories which have shaped their reality. So how can we keep moving so fast, labeling and seeing without looking and hearing? How can we tell a globalized story of the twenty-first century—creating it together in a holistic way?

We must allow ourselves to slow down. There is so much being said in daily images, we must listen and see further than the eye can see. We must look at and perceive our surroundings, and visually-impaired people are an example I encourage others to follow.

What’s next for you?

I want to keep using photography as a way to eradicate mental blindness—all the labels formed from our visual information and the prejudices we have built throughout life, which make us biased in our decisions and perceptions towards people. Through photography, people get to tell their stories directly, with no intermediation. Sensory photography is a tool to connect and communicate. I want to give a voice to those who are not being seen and yet who play an important role in society. I am hoping to do some work with refugees from Syria in Jordan; we are talking to UNICEF and the World Economic Forum to see what can be done. I am also trying to work with prisoners or homeless people, among other groups.

For more information, watch Gina’s overview of the Sight of Emotion project below, and (for Spanish readers) visit http://www.ojosquesienten.org/: