About seven years ago, I traveled to Oahu with my friend Maureen. Because we were both AmeriCorps VISTA volunteers, living at the poverty line for a year by choice, the idea of a Hawaiian vacation seemed impossibly decadent. But we found dirt cheap airfare and lodging at a mutual friend’s vacant condo. It was perfect. Except for one thing. Maureen’s dog had to stay back in Seattle because we couldn’t afford the vaccines that she’d need to pass through the Hawaiian quarantine.
I should mention that Maureen is completely blind.
She lost her sight in her mid-20s, but not her spit-fire spirit.
Maureen does not let her blindness stop her — even when maybe she should (more on that in a bit). Still, she didn’t find the prospect of a week without her guide dog especially appealing. Rather than skip the trip, she deemed me sufficiently trustworthy and decided that I could stand in for her trusty lab. So with Maureen at my elbow, we set out to see every part of that beautiful island.
As we explored, I clicked away with my old Powershot. Before doing so, I’d set Maureen up to explore on her own: palpating palm fronds, listening to the surf, inhaling the hibiscus-perfumed breezes, talking to questionable locals… Still, I couldn’t shake my unbearable sense of selfishness. I was the only one treated to the bright magenta blooms and lush green mountain for miles. The triple rainbows and the vast aqua ocean. Enormous shade trees and water-color sunsets. I repeatedly choked back the urge to say, “oh, I wish you could see this.” Just seemed inconsiderate. Instead, I took to narrating my experience to my friend. In detail as fine as the sand beneath our feet, I described the scenery and allowed her to create her own pictures. And when I paused, Maureen would often prompt me to fill in the blanks by describing to me what she noticed, which always reminded me to connect with my other four senses. As a result, my memories of this trip are among the most vivid stored in my brain to this day. I am certain that the act of simultaneously seeing and describing — of turning my vision into words — caused me to store the images with higher definition.
Experiencing the world in this way had a profound impact on the way I see. It taught me to both look and actively process what I see, which almost always makes me do a slow double take and pick up new layers of imagery and meaning. It has made me more inclined to find the story in the picture.
Maureen and I have never lived in the same place, so we’ve developed a habit of making mischief in cities and towns in every corner of the country (though not as frequently as I’d like.) Every time I hit new streets with Maureen I’m challenged to be both hyper-vigilant and extremely expressive. I frequently bring my camera despite the judgmental stares I receive from strangers who assume that I’m incredibly insensitive. Little do they know that Maureen is always far more insulted when she catches me limiting myself because of her. (If ever I decline an opportunity, she pokes me and says, “Would you do it if I weren’t here?” At my slightest hesitation, she “punishes” me by insisting on doing the risky activity herself — even if that means free-climbing a rocky pass on the edge of a cliff. True story.)
When I shoot with Maureen, these days, I do often exclaim, “you should see this.” (Because I now know that, with a small assist, she can.) Then, I make sure to either describe what I’m framing or to guide her hands to the object that’s caught my interest. As I talk to her about what we’re seeing, I’m frequently prompted to re-frame. While watching her hands move across a wrought iron fence, I’m prompted to try a different angle. And sometimes, while I’m fully focused on focusing, Maureen will hear something else for me to see. It is a remarkably synergistic process. On occasion, I’ve even put my camera in Maureen’s hands and told her to shoot. She may make fun of the lengths I will go to try make an interesting shot, but the photos she took while I was doing 70 through a pineapple plantation at dusk are pretty damn incredible in their own right.
Recently, I heard about a practice called Awareness Photography. I can’t find much written about it online, so if any of you have tried it, please share your experience. From what I understand, the concept is pretty simple: It requires the photographer to pair with a buddy — one blindfolded shooter and one sighted guide. This is best done in busy public space with a lot of sounds and smells. The guide orients the photographer and keeps her safe but doesn’t describe. The photographer sets the camera to auto and shoots without her eyes. You can set up your own parameters with your guide — determine if they will describe the scene or merely prevent your peril. The point is not to create timeless images, but to practice being informed by your otherwise neglected senses when shooting.
I haven’t had the opportunity to try this yet, but believe me, I will. I encourage you all to try as well and share your experiences here. (Please be safe and take appropriate precautions. Don’t do this alone or with someone you don’t trust unconditionally.)
As photographers, we are fixated on seeing. But as Maureen always reminds me, our eyes aren’t our only windows on the world.
A small collection of photographs that I took while walking around my old neighborhood in Queens with Maureen.
The shots are noticeably softer and gentler than my usual take on NYC.