Seeing Beyond Sight: Photographs by Blind Teenagers

Written by Tony Deifell

It seemed like a misguided idea: teaching photography to students with severe visual impairments. Indeed, author and educator Tony Deifell had a hard time convincing the Morehead School for the Blind to try the photo project. At first they thought his idea was a prank. Then when he started teaching the class, only three students signed up. One blind student even asked, “What are you thinking, teaching photography to blind students?”

Whatever he was thinking, it was right on track. The photo class became very popular and turned into an empowering experience for the students. They learned organizational skills while planning photo shoots. Team projects taught them to collaborate and communicate. They explored new places, met new people and gathered new experiences in their search for a great shot. During one photography class, a student said, “We can show other people that there is more to being blind or visually impaired than you think. We can do more than what you think we can do.”

The resulting book, according to publisher Chronicle Books, is being used as an educational tool, helping the general population have a better understanding of those with vision challenges. “Seeing Beyond Sight is a rare book of visual art and an educational resource that speaks with inspirational power, not only the visually impaired community, but to anyone who has ever considered what it means to see.” (www.chroniclebooks.com).

Deifell wasn’t sure how to teach the subject. He started by giving his students technical tips like, “Hold the camera level.” He soon discovered the teens’ greatest challenge was deciding where to point the camera. The young photographers felt around, asked logistical questions, and listened intently for subjects. To Deifell’s surprise, the students took their best pictures when they ignored his technical instructions and just took a shot that they really wanted.

One girl named Leuwynda took pictures of cracks in the school sidewalk. She then sent the photos to the school superintendent with a letter explaining her concerns, “Since you are sighted, you may not notice these cracks. They are a big problem since my white cane gets stuck.” Leuwynda’s request was granted; the sidewalk cracks were fixed.

Deifell followed up with some students ten years after the class ended. He found Luewynda, despite her impaired vision and cerebral palsy, living in her own apartment and working at a grocery store.

The book has drawn positive reviews in a variety of places. Blind author Kathy Knox read the text while sighted people described the pictures to her. “Overwhelmingly, [my readers] were impressed by the images and the words of the student photographers,” says Knox. A New York Times reviewer raved, “You see feelings in ways that you can’t with sighted photographers.” A Minneapolis artist said the blind students get us “looking at the world in a different way.”

Deifell, observing that the project has empowered the participants, said, “The students are excited to be published … feeling like they are heard and seen by the world.” One reader, Della Baldwin of Lake Forest, Ill., observed that the pictures are beautiful, and they show the students “as real people like you and me.” Baldwin, who worked for years in special education for visually impaired students, notes, “We relate to each photographer as a person, not a handicap person.”

Ironically, the book itself has a few accessibility issues. “Not every picture has a caption,” says Knox, “but all of them should—for this is where we see the students beyond themselves.”