Tammy Ruggles 2016-01-19 14:07:35
PHOTOGRAPHY and BLINDNESS When I was a little girl I spent countless days playing with my siblings and cousins on my grandparents’ farm. We climbed trees, jumped creeks and took walks with our dogs. It seemed there was always a camera around, and I was drawn to taking pictures at an early age. I was in awe that a simple, little device like a camera could make time stand still for an eternity. I had begun wearing glasses when I was 2. Since my family didn’t have a lot of money, the local Lions club helped pay for them. I didn’t know I would slowly lose my vision. My mother later told me she suspected I had a vision problem by the way I held my little children’s books up close to my face and by the way I grabbed her hand at night to get around. It turned out I had night blindness, which is a hallmark of the vision problem I had. Retinitis pigmentosa gradually destroys the retina, the camera of the eye. As a teenager my vision worsened, but it didn’t seem to be a big deal. Wearing thick glasses and sitting in the front of the class to see the blackboard were things that were part of who I was, so I was accustomed to it. At night it didn’t seem to be unusual for me to have to hold onto someone’s arm or sleeve to navigate the darkness. I learned how to make adjustments over the years—physically, mentally, and emotionally. I set the negative aside and got on with my life. Photography was something I understood as an art form, just as sketching and writing were to me. The thought of being a professional photographer never occurred to me. It was something I did for fun, like my other hobbies. As I grew into adulthood, my visual impairment made the things I loved to do—writing, reading, sketching, and taking pictures—more difficult. I could no longer read regular print without some form of magnification or large print, pick out the North Star or see pictures clearly in a magazine or book. The photos I’d saved over the years became blurry little squares and rectangles of color. I knew they were of my family, my friends, my pets, bowls of fruit, patches of flowers or my grandparents’ farm, but I could barely see them. At age 40, I had the hardest time grappling with vision loss because along with some sight I lost my social work career and my ability to drive. My eye doctor told me I was legally blind; my visual acuity was 20/200. I thought that being legally blind meant that you couldn’t see at all. What it really means is that you have a little vision. I didn’t realize how bad it was because I’d never had perfect vision to compare it to, and the vision loss happened so gradually that it was easy to get used to. My sense of value and purpose was challenged. I leaned on Social Security because I had a son to bring up by myself. His dad died in a car accident and left us no money. My independent nature was rocked. I couldn’t sketch anymore, and taking photos seemed pointless, difficult and ridiculous. What was the use of taking pictures if I couldn’t see them? The answer came years later in two parts. I realized that technology could allow the visually impaired to do many things we couldn’t do before. Technology had enabled me to write on a computer, sketch black and white pictures with the help of a 47-inch computer monitor, and view family photos in a way I hadn’t since I was a young girl. Secondly, I realized that photography was more than taking pictures for myself alone: It was taking pictures so that other people could see them. I would depend on the viewer to interpret and judge the photos. I slowly began to believe that I could bring photography back into my life. A simple point-and-shoot was good for a video camera. I could operate that with no problem. One button could tell a visual story. But would the same technology work for me as a photographer? It didn’t take long for me to find out that it would. I bought a nice little camera and began to take pictures of subjects I’m fond of: nature, rural scenery, objects that I would encounter on a walk or that someone would point out. The blurry images that my physical eyes saw were captured by my camera, and then enlarged on my monitor. I see best in high contrast, so I prefer black-and-white pictures. Sometimes I have to guess if a picture looks right or is pretty or interesting. Sometimes it takes other people to tell me how they look. And sometimes I’m sure they’re just plain off-center or weird-looking—like the picture of a farm I was taking, not realizing until it was pointed out to me later that the corner of a round hay bale was in the lower right-hand corner. My son said the “accidental hay bale” made the picture look more interesting than it would have been without it. This is where the viewer comes into play—with interpretation, comments and opinions. When I decided to get serious about photography two years ago, I chose a Sony camera because it was affordable. I couldn’t see to focus the lens, so I had the camera set to auto-everything. I just turned the camera toward the woods, snapped photos, pressed the zoom button and snapped again and again. I snap as I walk, turning my camera up, then down, then left, then right. If I walk with someone, this person often tells me to aim my camera toward a barn or fence, or a field, or some interesting clouds in the sky. The main feature I look for in a camera is point-and-shoot. Extra features, buttons, and settings are nice, but I can’t see the camera to change the settings. As long as it’s on auto-focus and there is only one button to use, I feel that I can take pictures. I never physically adjust my lens to focus. Since my photos have received compliments, and have been published, I’ve come to believe that it isn’t a camera that makes a good picture—it’s the subject, and, in my case, how contrasting it is. After I took a bunch of pictures with the Sony, I decided to sell it and downsize to a simpler model that was easier to carry with me all the time, and one that came without all the extra settings and features. It was a Polaroid, fit into the palm of my hand, pocket, or purse; and I used on the auto setting until it malfunctioned. One day it just wouldn’t turn on. That led to my inexpensive Nikon camera. Looking back, I think the Sony was more camera than I needed, but it was a good one to start with because it took pictures that people admired. I myself can’t see any difference in the quality of photos taken by various cameras, but other people can, especially editors at publications. I want the photos to be of good quality, but this doesn’t necessarily mean they have to come from an expensive camera. When people ask me, “How can you see what to shoot?” the answer is that I use my remaining vision. I see the world in a blur, but when I walk closer to something, I can make it out a lot better. Simply put, I see better close up than I do far away. I can assume that the big dark square across the field is a barn and when I walk closer to it I can actually see by its blurry shape that I was right. My better vision as a younger person helps me to identify things around me. I know what trees, barns, flowers, roads, hills, and creeks look like because there was a time when I could see these more clearly. I saw them for years and know what they look like. Let’s say I’m traveling with someone and he or she points out a rosebush beside the road. I may not be able to see it clearly with my eyes, but I can turn my camera toward it, with the person guiding my camera in the rosebush’s direction, and snap a picture. This is why I say my camera sees for me. It sees things that I don’t. I can even press the zoom button to capture a close-up, even though my eyesight can’t tell the difference. Many times I have a companion look at the display to check the picture—is it centered? Is it so off-centered that I shouldn’t use it? Should I take it again? How does it look? There are other times I take photos by myself. I randomly shoot pictures in different directions on purpose, then hurry home to see what I’ve caught. It’s exciting, because I like finding what my eyes have missed, like a patch of wild pumpkins growing at the edge of the woods, or a piece of petrified wood, or a fossil. My large computer screen enlarges the images that are too hard to see with my eyes. It’s so breathtaking to be able to see a piece of log that I’ve stepped on, or a leaf that brushed my hair, or a small waterfall that I heard but couldn’t see. I take a lot of images that, once I get a look at them on the computer, are too dark, too light, too plain, too boring, or don’t have enough contrast to be interesting to me. Maybe I’ve cut the corner off of a house, or my finger was too shaky on the shutter, or the random shots were just too random or similar. Sometimes I’ll have my son, or friend, or other family member look through them to see which ones look OK, and which ones I should delete. I do a lot of deleting, and only preserve the ones I think would be interesting to others, or publishable. Since the age of 40, my visual acuity has decreased to 20/400. This is medically classified as severely visually impaired, but not completely blind. My world gets blurrier and blurrier. Brown, purple, blue and green sometimes look the same to me, as do pinks, reds and oranges. If you turn the lens of a camera until it’s so out of focus that you can’t distinguish a person’s eyes, ears, nose, or mouth … well, this is how I see. I can’t identify my own family unless they’re a few inches in front of me. I can identify them at a distance if they are speaking, however, because I know their voices. When I look at a tree, I see a tall, blurry shape that my mind recognizes as a tree, but I can’t see the sharpness of the bark, or the individual leaves on it. I just know it’s a tree and take a picture. Most of the time I can’t tell what kind of tree it is until I view it on my large monitor. Because I was born with an artistic nature that I’ve tried to nurture over the years in spite of my visual impairment, I experience and interpret the world as an artist. I’ve read and studied different art books and artists, took four years of art classes in high school and another two or three in college. My experience as an artist tells me that, without having to see it clearly, an old barn, sunshine through the trees and a hay bale, are things that might have aesthetic appeal to certain viewers. In this respect, I don’t think I’m much different from other photographers. It all comes down to the photographer’s individual taste and style, and trying to translate that with a photograph. But a photographer can only convey so much. It takes the viewer’s interpretation to complete the artistic experience. Like most photographers and artists, I would like for my pictures to tell a story, evoke an emotion, entertain or inform. I enjoy it when people tell me that my photos make them feel something. One person viewing a picture of some woods brings fond memories of their father who was a logger, while another person viewing the same picture makes them feel uneasy because it reminds them of a time they felt very alone or afraid. Like some photographers, I use photography as a vocation as well as an artistic pursuit. For me, photography is as much of a job as social work was. I take it very seriously, and I try hard to use it to earn income. I believe we’re given skills and talents to use in everyday life. Earning money from photography is no different than earning money from laying bricks. If people like your work, there is compensation. You just have to keep looking for opportunities. It’s like being a door-to-door salesman, knocking on doors to sell your wares. I’ve been told by several people that my images are moody or somber. I do like to visit the dark side of art now and then, just as I like to visit the happy side of art. Like people, art is multifaceted, multidimensional and reflects many moods. It’s easy to see the appeal of a picture of a bright summer day. But we have to look a little harder to find the appeal in the branches of a dying tree. I tend to go for the simple, unusual, ambiguous or moody, which invites an experience, an interpretation. My world is simpler and more easily defined in high contrast, or black and white. Since my retinas are affected, this is the way I see best, and I really can’t explain it beyond that. Other visually impaired people who say the same thing. To me, the starkness in an image is easier to see. When it comes to subject matter, I tend toward nature shots. It’s not that I don’t love taking pictures of people. I do. But the people that I normally take pictures of (family and friends) get tired of being on camera. I live in a rural area where there aren’t a lot of people around and transportation is limited, so it’s out of necessity, practicality, and convenience that I go take a walk and take shots of nonhuman subjects. A tree is a tree. It doesn’t have to pose. It won’t move. It won’t get bored. But it will say something. When taking pictures of people, I tend to go for the candid shots. Those are easier to capture a person’s personality. I don’t have to guess so much as to whether I’m getting a portrait centered. Or if there are unwanted shadows crossing the face. Or someone blinks at the wrong time. Or what their expressions look like. Or if they are even looking at the camera. A few of my photographs have been published in literary journals and art magazines, and people tell me that my photography is good. That makes me feel like trying photography again wasn’t a mistake. But the best part of it all is that other visually impaired people can realize that they too can find a way to be a photographer. Ruggles lives in northern Kentucky. Her photos have been published in art magazines and literary journals.
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