When I began discussing the ideas of ‘seeing’
and ‘vision’ with my students and peers, I became more
and more aware that these concepts are boundless. Not only are they
pervasive throughout our culture—in language, art and religion,
but they encompass innumerable levels of meaning for every individual.
They are subjective. Although I must concede that photography is
a visual art, I will also add that seeing and vision entail a great
deal more than merely looking with one’s eyes.
It was with this in mind that I turned my attention to the work
of blind photographers like Evgen Bavcar, who explains, “I
photograph what I imagine. You could say I’m a bit like Don
Quijote. The originals are inside my head. It is a matter of creating
a mental image, the physical record which best represents the work
of what is imagined.”
Well, I asked myself, isn’t that
what art is— creating and recreating the inner workings of
the mind’s eye, those inner visions?
I took the next step by conducting photographic sessions blindfolded.
The results amazed me. I could not quite imagine what my subject
was doing, but I did find extraordinary ways of sensing and envisioning,
if you will, the movement and expression of my subject. I could
sense her position by her voice, by her breathing and in other subtleties.
I knew where her tensions became manifest and could direct her accordingly.
I learned to intuit at which moment to depress the shutter. I experienced
the disorientation of the temporary loss of sight and the freedom
to more fully explore the depths of my other senses. I drew upon
them heavily to compensate for sightlessness. As a result, I have
made photographs blindfolded that I do not believe I could have
The biggest surprise came when I removed the blindfold at the end
of a session. Seeing was too much! It was so, overwhelming—so
distracting. It was disabling. For a time, I preferred shooting
blindfolded. I had to find ways to gently reintroduce myself to
my sense of sight. In doing so, I became more capable of understanding
the process and the profundity of the human ability to see. I also
began to separate the idea of seeing from the capacity to ‘have
vision’ and to ‘envision.’
We can control our visions. They
grow from our imaginations. We learn to express them in our visual
art. As we master our art, our control continues to grow. Now we
control the equipment we use along with our responses to visual
cues. We fine-tune our ability to manipulate our subjects so that
they mirror our inner visions. We can envision situations, people,
actions, reactions—and in doing so, we feed the illusion of
controlling sight and vision. Once we have achieved some degree
of mastery, we risk sinking into safe ways of operating. We predict
the results of our actions. Many professional photographers fall
into habits and feel that they have lost the explorative, experimental
elements they so enjoyed when they were first studying their craft.
I wonder if, in fact, they are merely relying on the tried and true—shutting
down the encroachment of sense stimuli. In the heat of battle, when
a photographer is responsible for delivering material according
to a client’s prospectus, I fully commiserate with a professional’s
fear of being ‘out of control.’ That is why there is
delineation between the work that an artist does for someone else
and the work he or she does for him or herself. I maintain that
the latter, which involves the random element, risk, exploration
and experimentation is essential to the growth of any artist.
It is, of course, the hope of any
artist that his or her own body of essential work will begin to
draw suitable clients. When, as in the case of certain photographers
like Helmut Newton, the artist is given relatively free reign to
produce work in the way he sees fit, we have the ideal combination
of art and commerce.
As much as we might try, we cannot control what we see. The gift
of sight takes on a power of its own. It becomes dangerous. It leads
us, distracts us, blinds us. We only pretend to control what we
see, erecting barriers to protect ourselves from those things we
are not prepared to see. If, for a time, you limit your sense of
sight by using a blindfold or exploring a dark room, you will find
yourself vulnerable. When we make the choice to reintroduce the
sense of sight, to remove the blindfold, or turn on the light, it
will take time to re-create those protective boundaries, to regain
‘control’ of our sights. In this time, the artist might
consider the aspects of the experience that, for him or her, most
differed from the usual experience of shooting. Perhaps there was
a vulnerability in the photographer that allowed the subject to
be more open to experimentation. Perhaps the photographer felt a
keen awareness of senses that he or she did not realize were so
powerful. These are elements that can now be explored and integrated
into future sessions. They will add dimension to the artist’s
The camera is the ideal device for ‘controlling’ sight.
It frames what we choose to see and filters out the excess. We focus
it just as it focuses us —literally and figuratively. It helps
us edit out whatever it is we don’t want to let into our range
of perception. It’s no surprise that, with so wondrous tool
of control at his disposal, the photographer feels empowered.
The human ability to see, combined with our strong dependency upon
our sense of sight, sanctions the suppression of our other senses—
senses that might promote more sensitive choices. Relying a little
less on sight allows us to make more intuitive art. It is important
not only to recognize the magic of sight—by knowing fully
just how powerful a tool it is, but also to acknowledge that sight
can, for the artist, be powerfully blinding.