Thursday, May 21, 2015

What does a 'blind' photographer see?

By Louise Kinross

When Mark Nicol was a kid he picked up his dad’s camera a couple of times but was frustrated because he couldn’t see through the viewfinder.

That’s because he was born with vision loss: he sees one-tenth the resolution of what someone with regular vision sees.

So it may be surprising to learn that today Mark’s passion is photography. And his images are part of an exhibit called
The Mind’s Eye at the Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB) in Toronto.

“The beautiful thing about photography is it’s a creative outlet,” Mark says. “No one is saying I have to take the same pictures or do the same style as someone else. Being creative means finding your own way.”

The CNIB exhibit includes pictures from photographers who are blind or partially sighted from across Canada. “There are many misconceptions about vision loss, but none as pervasive as a life of complete darkness,” says Len Baker, executive director and regional vice-president Ontario. “We wanted to challenge this stigma.”

Mark says he got his first camera in his 30s, when digital cameras came out and he realized he could see through the LCD screen. “I thought I’d get it to take goofy snapshots of friends but I started using it creatively right away and was hooked.”

One of the ways Mark makes photography work for him is to have an eyeglass prescription built into his viewfinder so he can take his glasses off and put the camera right up to his eye. “I’m still only seeing one-tenth of what someone with good vision sees, but as far as I’m concerned, things are as clear as they can get.”

Another way he adapts is to use auto-focus. “In the old days before our current round of digital cameras, a lot of photographers were focusing manually by turning a ring on a lens. I can’t see well enough to do that. Mastering my auto-focus system, and knowing when I can count on it and when I can’t, has been crucial.”

Mark, who lives in Victoria, B.C., says he’s a generalist who loves shooting everything from landscapes and architecture to pets and portraits. “I also adore doing travel photography and I have a little studio in my garage where I do some product work.” The photo above of St. Peter's Basilica in Rome is his (please click on it to see it in its entirety).

Mark says he’s not sure that the images he produces are different because of his vision loss, but his method of taking them is.

“I’ll walk the scene a lot before I take a picture and explore my subjects differently than someone who has better vision.”

Mark says people assume that vision loss is the same for everyone, but in fact is very individual. “There are people in this exhibit with a range of vision and with completely different types of vision from what I have.”

He notes that there are photographers in New York City who work without any sight. “They’re in a photography studio and they sit a person down in a completely dark room and they set the camera on a tripod. They open the shutter and they walk over with various flash lights and they actually paint light on the person, feeling the person’s face and getting a sense of where the person’s limbs are. At the end of the session they have a picture of a person painted with light. It’s a completely different approach.”

He encourages parents of kids with vision loss to let their kids try photography. “As a visually impaired person figuring out photography, you realize a lot of it is simple problem-solving: ‘Mom, I can’t see if my picture is in focus.’ So you have to do some problem-solving. I’m amazed at the incredible images people take who have much lower vision than me, or no vision. Either you solve the problem or you come about it backwards and maybe you don’t solve it, but you take it in a different direction with a photo where that problem isn’t an issue anymore.”

The Mind’s Eye exhibit is on at the CNIB at 1929 Bayview Avenue in Toronto. Friday May 22 from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. is the last day.