Blind with a vision
Visually challenged people are sometimes seen as being limited in their abilities, but they continue to prove the sky is the limit, says Sarah Eissa
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Clockwise from top left: Nahla El-Bakri's photo of Cairo University's Dome; Tareq El-Shennawi's shot of the duck lake at the zoo; Radwa Mahmoud took a photo of the fountain in Al-Azhar Park; Walid Farghali shot the chain industry statues in the Agriculture Museum; Zaki trains one of the students; Farghali guided by the trainer; at the exhibition
When photographers find a good picture, they get their cameras and shoot. But what if they cannot see? One group of blind photography students has begun to answer this question.
Tareq El-Shennawi, 41, public relations coordinator at the Taha Hussein Hall in Cairo University's new central library, is blind, and although he is not a student he was enthusiastic to learn photography with blind students at a workshop held in the library. El-Shennawi plays different sports and has a diploma in diving: although he is blind, this is not going to stop him from enjoying photography.
"It helps psychologically when I feel I am doing something like other people," El-Shennawi confided to Al-Ahram Weekly in an interview. "It motivates me when other people feel I have the right to do what they do," and he criticised the idea that a physically challenged person necessarily has limited abilities.
"I was wary at first, because I didn't know how to teach blind people photography when this is mainly based on vision," said Riham Zaki, 27, assistant teacher in the educational media department at the Faculty of Specific Education at Cairo University and the workshop trainer. In order to find out more, Zaki started to read about photography for the blind, discovering that such people can use other senses, such as smell, touch and hearing, to help them take photographs.
The idea behind the workshop was the brainchild of professor Fifi Zallat from the Faculty of Art Education, Zaki said, explaining that Zallat had approached her because she was looking for someone specialising in mass communication who also taught photography. As a result, Zallat approached Zaki, who then participated with other trainers in a workshop at the Saad Zaghloul Cultural Centre. Following the success of this workshop, Zaki volunteered to train students at the Taha Hussein Hall.
Many students were happy when the library announced the workshop, she said, because they had long wanted to learn photography. There are many internationally famous blind photographers, she added, among them Egyptian photographer Nazih Rizk.
Zaki explained that in organising the training she met with different student groups, and then selected participants who were seriously willing to learn. Patience is an important factor, she said. Because Zaki is currently the only teacher, the workshops are small, consisting of five students, most of them from the Faculty of Mass Communication, and the students use digital cameras provided by the library.
Many students were surprised when they first heard about the idea. Nahla El-Bakri, 22, a fourth-year student in mass communication, joined the workshop because she wanted to know more about photography for the blind. Marwa El-Bakri, Nahla's sister, 23, a pre-Masters student at Ain Shams University, joined her sister in the workshop because she wanted the experience of learning about photography, which she believes can help her in her future career.
Photography is about imagination, El-Bakri said, and it can develop sensibility by enhancing appreciation of composition and colour.
"This course proves that there is a solution for every problem," she said, "even if it may not be apparent. This should be part of our approach to life, having faith that we can overcome our problems in the future."
Walid Farghali, 21, a fourth-year mass communication student, also liked the idea, especially because it relates to his specialisation. Blind students often study photography theoretically in college, but they rarely get a chance to try it out for themselves, he said. The workshop was a useful experience for him, though he would still be wary about taking photographs alone.
He has tried to take photographs with his mobile phone camera, but "the outcome was not professional. Photography is a matter of a vision, and we do not have a visual sense. Photography by blind people may not be of the same quality as photography by the sighted, but it will be the same kind of thing." Many photographs taken by students on the course were very good, he said, and viewers would never know that they were taken by people who could not see.
Zaki explains that during the training a theoretical session is held first, teaching students how to use and hold the camera. They then visit different places to start the practical part and start shooting. Zaki said that Photoshop is never used to alter details in the resulting photographs.
According to El-Shennawi, there are two types of subjects that participants on the course concentrate on. The first type is subjects that they cannot touch, like buildings, so the trainer describes them for them. They can imagine how the subject looks and then take photographs of it under her guidance.
The second type of subject is those that can be felt or touched, like statues or waterfalls. "I hear the sound of the water and know where it is coming from. I can then imagine how it looks and suggest an angle to the trainer," El-Shennawi said.
Zaki added that students are able to choose the right angle when they can feel the subjects, moving backwards by counting steps in order to shoot the image. "I have become more independent in taking photographs as a result," El-Shennawi said, adding that it is important for the trainer to understand the psychology of blind people and how to develop their senses.
After the practical sessions, the students and trainer chose the best photographs, and a selection has already been shown at the Sour Al-Azbakiya exhibition held at Cairo University and now permanently installed in the library.
According to Farghali, at the beginning it was hard to shoot because participants could not see what they were taking photographs of; however, if someone accurately described it, they would be able to work out angles and distances, essential for taking a proper photograph. El-Bakri said that one problem she faces is being able to know the exact distance between her and her subject. There are also the general problems that everybody faces, such as keeping the camera still while shooting.
Radwa Mahmoud, 20, a fourth-year student in mass communication, said that holding the camera for the first time was difficult and it was also hard to take a photograph if the subject had not been well described. She had tried to take photographs without a companion, she said, but only on a small scale by photographing her siblings at home.
In general, blind people needed more practice if they were to become confident photographers, El-Bakri said. At the faculty, they learn photography for two or three years, but blind people are likely to use different photographic techniques from sighted people. El-Shennawi said that the one week of the workshop was very useful, but there was a need for more time. "Things done with the assistance of others tend to be incomplete," he said.
Zaki said that the one-week workshop was a first stage. "Students need to practice more," she said, adding that there had not been time to work with human subjects, though some students had already started to do that by using the cameras in their mobile phones.
The library had hosted the workshop and provided the funds for the cameras and photographic printing. However, there was still a need for additional funds, notably for transportation, as public transport had not proved suitable. Organising further workshops would depend on finding further sponsors and places to host them, she said. She would also like to see a way of recognising the achievements of those students who had taken part, possibly in the form of a catalogue and certificates in Braille.
El-Shennawi is eager to take photographs alone, and he suggests that cameras could be provided with speech programmes, like computers, that could help guide blind photographers. "Necessity is the mother of invention," he said. He would like to prove other people wrong by taking photographs that non-blind people might think the blind would be unable to take. This would be a great source of pride, he said, as well as a way of sending the message that there is nothing that blind people cannot do, if given the chance.
Blind people need motivation, El-Shennawi explained, and other people can help by showing that they are sensitive to the needs of the blind. "Society can be part of the problem either by ignorance or carelessness. People should cooperate with blind people to make them feel more part of society and more able to do things."
Blind people can play table tennis, dive, knit and stitch, which is even harder to do than photography. For El-Shennawi, the workshop is only the beginning, and he admits to having become addicted to taking photographs on mobile phone. "If people are not convinced that I can take photographs, I photograph them using the phone," he said, proving the point during the Weekly interview by taking a photograph of the writer knowing only where I was standing and my height.
In order to gain professional feedback on the student photographs taken at the workshop, the Weekly approached Samir Saadeddin, professor of photography at the Higher Cinema Institute in Cairo, who commented that blind people working in photography was nothing new. "I hear it happens in Europe and America," he said, "and there is the blind Egyptian photographer Nazih Rizk."
God gave blind people additional capacity in hearing and other senses, Saadeddin said, and as a result they can feel things that a sighted person can't. Creativity in art is about sensation, he added, and blind people sometimes have heightened capacities for sensation, though he still questioned how they could use aspects of cameras, such as viewfinders. We need to encourage creative people and to find ways of helping those who are visually challenged, or challenged in other ways, to overcome their disabilities.
After looking at the photographs, Saadeddin was very pleasantly surprised. "They must have been helped with these pictures," he said. "These are better than some of the pictures sighted people shoot. If these photographs were really taken by blind people, then it is a miracle." Many of the students showed a very high degree of sensitivity, and he praised their work and that of their teachers.