Prime Edition

Mihika Jindal

Blind with Camera: Promoting visually challenged photographers

A shot of Katrina Kaif by Bhavesh Patel for a Lux ad campaign.

Is photography strictly a visual art? What about conceiving a thought, an idea, and clicking a photo without even looking? A picture framed entirely in your imagination, based on sounds around, the smell in the air? Blind with Camera is an initiative that trains and assists visually impaired individuals (of varying degrees) in taking photos and exhibiting their work. It was started in 2006 by Mumbai-based Partho Bhowmick, who used to be just another corporate employee with a passion for photography, before he decided to commit to this venture.

It all began when Bhowmick stumbled upon a story about Evgen Bavcar, an acclaimed blind photographer from France with more than 100 exhibitions to his credit. Bavcar's work inspired Bhowmick to create a platform to support visually impaired photographers. Following many a conversation with Bavcar, Bhowmick touched base with Art beyond Sight, a Norway-based global consortium of blind artists, before he eventually established Blind with Camera, an organisation that empowers the sight-challenged through art, ensuring their social inclusion and providing equal access to art.

Bhowmick conducts workshops where visually challenged people can enrol. He has trained more than 500 blind photographers across India. The first part of the course is all about getting familiar with the camera — the touch and feel of the buttons, the lens and sound of the shutter. "I provide them with simple point-and-shoot cameras. They begin clicking for the sheer fun of it and thoroughly enjoy the sound of the shutter," says Bhowmick. Once they get accustomed to their cameras, they are taken for photo walks and are asked to shoot whatever they feel like. Their clicks are primarily triggered by sounds such as a fluttering bird, a chuckling baby or ruffling leaves. "They take a lot of pictures and then we sit together to review them. I ask them to explain what they think they have captured. It's amazing how their senses work together to conjure up a picture of exactly what they have clicked," beams Bhowmick.

Bhowmick wants the group's work to be at par with other professional artists; he doesn't want to base their activities only on charity and fundraising events. Blind with Camera had their first public show in 2007 at the NCPA, Mumbai. Things panned out for them quite smoothly, "Kodak was the first organisation to support us. Even though they were not willing to provide financial help, they offered to give us equipment," says Bhowmick. Galleries across India have also been supportive and have offered them spaces to exhibit their work. "Even though these galleries offer space during the lean period for the art fraternity, I don't mind as long as I am getting the opportunity to exhibit and spread awareness about the phenomenal work this group is doing," says Bhowmick.

Blind with Camera's first experience in the big league was when well-known advertising agency J Walter Thompson (JWT), Mumbai hired Bhavesh Patel, one of Bhowmick's students, to shoot the Lux campaign with Katrina Kaif. Patel's association with Blind with Camera started in 2009 when he enrolled himself in a summer workshop. "I had never handled a camera and a photography workshop for the blind was an unusual thing. I have always wanted to try new things and thought of giving this a shot too," says Patel. It was Patel's natural ease with the camera and his willingness to push the limits that landed him at the studio to shoot an ad campaign for JWT and Unilever. "I had to make sure they treated Bhavesh at par with any other photographer. They were more than willing to cooperate. They focussed on him and his needs in a detailed manner," recollects Bhowmick. Patel, on the other hand, was confident of his approach, "I was not nervous. My only thought was to use this platform to convey that photography is not completely reliant on sight; I wanted to show [people] that this is a reality and it's possible."

Through this journey, Patel has empowered himself to pursue his passion. He uses his iPhone to take photos, while voiceover apps help him click, review and sort them. "There's an app that describes the entire picture and lighting conditions and detects faces, which is a big help. Another interesting app is CamFind that identifies the objects in a photo and searches the web to tell me what I've captured. There is another iOS app called TapTapSee, which allows me to select pictures from my gallery and recognise elements in it," he says. Technology has made this process easy for him, to the point where he doesn't require assistance from others. Patel recently shot his first public event in Mumbai for a college and he wants to be a full-fledged event photographer in due time.

“They begin clicking for the sheer fun of it and thoroughly enjoy the sound of the shutter... They take a lot of pictures and then we sit together to review them. I ask them to explain what they think they have captured. It’s amazing how their senses work together to conjure up a picture of exactly what they have clicked.”

Photography by the blind continues to be an unfamiliar concept for most. That said, Bhowmick is trying to minimise this gap through special "blind photo walks", while also trying to generate revenue for these photographers. "We started these photo workshops where we blindfolded sighted people and handed them cameras. The interesting part is that the blindfolded participants are manned by my students, which marks a total role reversal. It's an empowering experience for my students and a humbling one for those who participate," explains Bhowmick. These workshops are conducted across corporates and educational institutes with the primary purpose of creating a source of income for the visually impaired photographers.

Blind with Camera's photographs are now in the process of being compiled into two coffee table books that are expected to release this year. This compilation is designed to be a completely accessible photo book, which will come equipped with audio notes and Braille script so that the blind can enjoy it as much as the sighted.

Learn more about the initiave at www.blindwithcamera.org

 
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