Blind Photography Workshop in Dublin

This blog post from Photo Narrations gives an insight (pun intended1) into a photography workshop for the blind that I took part in. The pic of the Brendan Behan statue is mine, and I’m also in one of the light-painting pictures. You get two images of my face for the price of one!

Photo Narrations

I´m working for a Berlin-based project called Photo Narrations – Pictures for the Blind and Sighted. We organise photography workshops for people with vision impairments. The idea developed when photographer Karsten Hein was taking photos of people with sight loss for one of his exhibitions. Talking to his models,he realised that especially those who used to have more sight were interested in photography but had given it up or didn’t feel comfortable enough to join a photography club. So Karsten started a specific photography group.

a man with with a guide dog taking pictures, a woman standing next to him assists

How does blind photography work?

It is all about teamwork. The vision impaired photographer teams up with one or two sighted volunteers. The assistants help with selecting motives, framing the shot and picking the best pictures. At the end of each session, all teams meat up to talk about each others pictures and to describe them. Pictures and descriptions are subsequently gathered in an online…

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The Thrill of the Spoken Word

Last Saturday, I was delighted to play a small part in Modwordsfest, Waterford’s first-ever spoken words festival. I’ve become very drawn to spoken word in recent times. It’s hard to know how to define it, but I would describe it as any piece of literature that is spoken rather than written. That means either you write a piece that is designed to be performed, or you write no script at all – you just perform the piece off the cuff at an event. Spoken word can be poetry or prose, fictional or true- it just needs to be spoken.

Spoken word helps me to reconcile the part of my personality that loves to reflect and write and the part that loves to perform. For the Modwordsfest reading, I decided to go pure mad and perform a piece I’d written, but without a script. I’d already read it at another spoken word event, so it was fresh in my head. When it came to my turn, I just went for it.

And I have to admit, it was a headrush. The challenges of a muffling microphone and the sounds of a band playing on the street all disappeared as I spun my story, about the ups and downs of finding a good hairdresser. The crowd laughed in all the right places, and people passing by stopped to have a look. My inner diva was truly satisfied.

Here’s a pic of me reading. Have you ever tried spoken word yourself? How was the experience for you?

Reading at Modwordsfest - Derek Flynn
Reading in The Book Centre, Waterford, for Modwordsfest. Photo Credit: Derek Flynn

Matching Words with Pictures

I’ve always seen myself as a word person, not a picture person. I’ve heard all the clichés, that pictures paint a thousand words, that every picture tells a story. But I felt very little urge to take any myself. I’ve always thought words were enough. But last weekend, I found myself taking a photography course.

 

Why I Took the Course

 

You could blame my lack of interest on my sight problem. But that’s not the reason – at least on a superficial level. Having a visual impairment doesn’t mean you can’t have a visual brain. But I never really developed mine. Pictures just never spoke to me. Maybe it’s because I’m missing the layer of detailed vision that makes pictures more interesting. Or maybe it’s just because my brain is wired for sound.

 

But in the last few years, I’ve become increasingly aware that the world runs on pictures. When I was asked why I wanted to do the course, I quipped that I wanted to get more likes on my social media posts by putting up pictures, and this in turn would make me feel good about myself. But I really did it so I could get a sense of how pictures worked and what makes a good picture, so I can communicate more effectively with pictures.

 

I spotted a notice about a photography course for visually impaired people in a newsletter I subscribe to. It was given by Carsten Hein, a photographer from Berlin who’s worked with blind photographers before. I felt the course would offer a sympathetic environment for me to develop my skills in the making of pictures.

What Happened on the Course

A group of about twenty of us gathered in the National Council for the Blind’s headquarters in Dublin for the course. Half of us had some form of visual impairment and the other half were sighted volunteers, photography enthusiasts from different camera clubs in Dublin. Carsten divided us into two groups, one to take shots outdoors and the others to do light painting, of which more later.

I chose to do the outside photography, and I took pictures of things that I never would have noticed otherwise. I felt I was seeing the world in a different way. The feedback afterwards was illuminating (pun intended). I was impressed by how some photographers, who had very little sight, had such a precise idea of what they wanted their pictures to achieve and how to position their subjects. It confirmed my belief that you don’t need to have sight to have a visual brain.

Then on Sunday, we all did the light painting. Some of you may be familiar with this technique. The room is darkened, and flashlights are trained on a subject to illuminate it. The camera is set so that it takes the picture a number of seconds after you press the button. The camera transforms the beam into ribbons of light that look for all the world like spaghetti strands. You can use the strands to make beautiful shapes. The most striking was a series of Braille dots which spelt out Breaking Limits.

What I Learned

The course confirmed my belief that you don’t need to have full eyesight to have a visual brain. Some photographers were blind or near-blind, but had a very precise idea of what they wanted their pictures to achieve. Once they were told where to aim their camera, and where given detailed descriptions of what they were taking, they could take beautiful photographs.

I still don’t think I’ll make a photographer. Words will always be my great love. But the course has given me the confidence to complement my words with pictures. I have more faith in my ability to find interesting pictures to take. The descriptions of the pictures taken on the course revealed the layers that lie beneath the surface of pictures, and I’m now going to enjoy looking for those layers.

I put the lessons into practise straight away, when I went to a concert on the Saturday night of the course and was inspired to take this picture of the church where it was held.

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My Big Fat Funding Application

Recently, I handed in a big brown envelope at an office in Dublin. It did not contain money, but it did contain something previous: my application for Irish Arts Council funding to develop a literature project. I applied to the Artist in the Community Scheme, which gives artists funding to develop projects with a community group of their choice.

Application Form
Applying for Arts Council Funding – taking workshops to the next level

In my case, the community group will comprise visually impaired people who are service users of the National Council for the Blind of Ireland (NCBI). I’ve been giving creative writing workshops there for some time, so I felt it was time to take the workshops to the next level. NCBI have given me great support in my ventures. We’ve decided that a radio broadcast would be the right fit for the group.

Research Into Application

My research for this application and in general over the last couple of years tells me that if you want to get funding for such a project to happen, you need to do it as a group project. Everyone involved contributes to the artwork, but the artist is the leader and kits together everyone’s contribution to create one original piece of art.

This involves a shift in thinking for me, from being a facilitator to being an artist who leads a group towards the creation of an artwork. To manage this shift in thinking and learn more about the process of creating a collaborative artwork, I applied for a mentor as part of the funding.

The mentor I chose is called Ciaran Taylor and he has worked with visually impaired people in a radio drama project called Sightless Cinema. So he understands the needs of my chosen group, and he has loads of experience in bringing together people’s ideas to make an artwork.  

Create, a community arts organisation which runs the Artist in the Community Scheme for the Irish Arts Council, run a very helpful advisory service. One of their coordinators spent ages with me, giving me advice. She really gave me food for thought, about how to turn myself from a facilitator into an artist, and the importance of not presuming to know what a group might want.

If I am successful, the biggest challenge I have will be in recruiting people for the project. Because I’ve been working at NCBI for the last couple of years, the participants have already done several workshops with me, so they may feel they’ve already done enough. So we’ll be widening the pool of participants, and we’ll also invite sighted people who have an association with NCBI to come along. This will make the project more mainstream and integrated.

Goal of Project

The aim of this phase of the project will be to figure out what type of project will best suit the group. Maybe it will be linked spoken word pieces, or maybe it will be a long, glorious stream of words. Or maybe it’s not a viable project at all, but that will be an outcome in itself. Either way, it will be up to me to make the project a success. That’s quite a daunting thought, but I’m ready for a new challenge.

Have you ever worked on a collaborative arts project? What did you do to provide leadership and inspiration to the group? What process did you use to achieve the final project?